Most major sports leagues are still postponed because of the pandemic. And the NCAA is still in the midst of approving plans to get college sports back in action for the fall.
But the prospect of campus capacity limits, playing without fans, and players testing positive for COVID-19, leaves much of the college sports world still up in the air.
Esports, on the other hand, have proved much more adept at migrating online. Nearly a million fans streamed the remotely-played League of Legends spring finals.
College esports at NIU is also expanding. The school announced that it’ll be part of the new Esports Collegiate Conference, made up of all the universities in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) for traditional sports.
Conner Vagle is the general manager of NIU Esports. He says the conference gives them a structured game schedule and, as a varsity sports team, grants players access to campus resources.
“They're going to have a specific space within the campus that they'll be able to go to compete and practice," said Vagle. "We're going to provide them with coaching and support, in terms of like academic support.”
Right now there are varsity League of Legends and Overwatch teams, with a third game coming soon.
Alex Kramer is a senior support player on NIU’s Overwatch team. He says having the schedule makes it easier to devise specific game plans for each opponent.
“Before it was very difficult to review footage and try to understand how certain players on a team played if they’re some small college in Texas,” he said. “Versus now, we know who we're going to be playing each week. And so we're going to be able to better prepare ourselves for them.”
Kramer wants NIU Esports to have conference rivalries with schools like Kent State.
“We're also excited to be playing for something a little more,” he said. “Before we'd be playing for a ranking in some national tournament. Now, all our teams just want to be the conference champions.”
Jeannine East is the project manager for the NIU esports initiative. She’s part of the office of outreach, engagement and regional development
She says NIU’s kinesiology department is also offering an esports minor starting in the fall semester.
“Just like the NFL or any entertainment industry, it's not just about the pro players who want to graduate and get a job as a pro player,” she said. “They need marketing people, physical therapists, graphic designers.”
East says they’re also offering internships and hiring student workers, like Alex Kramer.
There will be social media, shoutcasting (esports commentators), even coaching and support jobs. Overall, East says it just helps legitimize the community they’ve cultivated.
There is already an esports arena on campus in DeKalb, plus facilities in Naperville and Hoffman Estates, as well as partnerships with local park districts in the region.
NIU also has an esports club separate from the teams that boasts 100+ members. They stream on Twitch and have a Discord channel.
Conner Vagle knows there’s still plenty of room to grow. Luckily for its participants, esports are much more mainstream than they were five to 10 years ago.
In 2018, more people watched the League of Legends World Championships than the Super Bowl.
But although it’s getting better, Vagle still sometimes has to explain that it’s not just video games to parents of prospective players.
“It's really awesome when we get to see kind of that light bulb click in the parents’ eyes,” said Vagle.
And he says, hopefully, as they ramp up the level of competition, it’ll increase their visibility on campus.
Alex Kramer echoed that same idea. He says the pandemic has also been a unique chance to get more eyeballs on esports and grow the audience. He’s seen major sports networks like ESPN airing esports like the NBA 2K League.
“I feel like if baseball and other sports and NFL training camps are going on, they might not have been shown,” he said. “So definitely it's interesting to see all these opportunities that esports is getting in this time.”
As for his team particularly? With a load of returning players, he thinks NIU Overwatch has a strong shot at the inaugural conference title.
“We've played and beaten some of the schools in this conference before in past tournaments," said Kramer. "We definitely feel good about our chances going forward.”
Jeannine East with the NIU esports initiative says she’s happy about the growth because the university has been very purposeful about building the program.
“Supporting healthy gaming practice, one is building community, and supporting new technology in research and academics,” she said.
Put all of that together, and soon they may be done having to explain what NIU esports is all about.