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Utah’s Varsity Esports Program: A Sign of Things to Come

Over the past few years, we’ve borne witness to esports’ meteoric growth. “Mainstream” outlets, such as ESPN and Yahoo, now boast dedicated esports divisions and well-known entities in sports and entertainment, like Rick Fox, Shaquille O’Neal, and the Philadelphia 76ers (among others), have also dipped their toes into the esports pond.

Another realm in which esports has taken tremendous strides is collegiate gaming. Varsity programs, such as those at Robert Morris University and University of California, Irvine, have steadily cropped up, providing prospective and current collegiate students more opportunities to represent their school and vie for numerous scholarships and benefits. This has undoubtedly helped dispel the stigma many esports competitors face, as more and more prolific institutions recognize the value and importance of esports.

Recently, up in Salt Lake City, Utah among the picturesque Wasatch Mountains, the University of Utah also seeks to contribute to the growth of collegiate esports by kicking off its own varsity program. Notably, this marks the first Power 5 school to undergo such an endeavor. I spoke with Utah’s director of operations at the school of Entertainment Arts & Engineering, A.J Dimick, in order to ascertain more details of the program.

“We’re very grateful for the programs that came before us,” stated Dimick. “Programs such as RMU and UC Irvine helped pioneer the types of things we are trying to do.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIH2N0RhLlQ]

Utah’s A.J. Dimick speaks to ESPN’s SportsCenter to discuss the school’s varsity esports program. 

I inquired about the team selection process. “We will have an open tryout just before fall semester and those who make the roster will be scholarship players,” he replied. “The timing is to give those who will be freshman an opportunity to be on campus when we do it.”

“We are cutting and pasting some of the NCAA model of eligibility for the esports team,” he said. “There will be a GPA requirement as well as necessary progress toward degree for each year you are on the team. We will also institute an eligibility clock meaning that you can play four seasons in five years. We think these are common sense requirements that ensure that our players are students first.”

Angela Klingsieck, the Executive Director of the Crimson Gaming program at the University of Utah, from which Utah’s varsity program stems, sees great importance in the newly minted esports program. “As the director of Crimson Gaming at the University of Utah, we become not only a recruitment tool for the club, but an ambassador for the new Utah Varsity Esports program on campus.”

She continued, “Every new competitive team we create or every new community branch (i.e. Rocket League, or fighting games) we support is taken much more seriously. We hope that every competitive aspect of our group can eventually be adopted as a varsity opportunity.

I pressed Dimick as to which benefits a varsity esports program would bring to the university and the community. “We wanted to give this great gaming community on campus an opportunity to use what they are passionate about and what they are really good at to represent the university,” he answered. “We want them to be Utes. We want to embrace gaming culture so the gamers on campus identify with their school in perhaps ways they didn’t before.”

Utah’s Crimson Gaming squad, shown above, competes for esports glory.

“We absolutely believe this will attract more students,” added Klingsieck. “The University of Utah essentially is one of the most games-friendly campuses in the [United States]. Not only are we pretty good at making games – we want to prove that we’re the best at playing them too!”

The rankings back her words. In 2016, the Princeton Review ranked Utah’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering program as the number one undergraduate school for game design. In 2017, Utah was ranked third in the nation. With a nation-leading department helming the varsity program, Klingsieck sees a lot of scrutiny incoming. “This places a lot more legitimacy and performance pressure on our players,” she argued. “Becoming varsity official means that we are going to be examined by the public with a more magnified lens piece and that we are going to have to be well prepared when onboarding our varsity players in addition to considering other esports to add to our program.”

Klingsieck sees opportunities for prospective varsity members. “I’ve known too many student players who were incredibly talented drop out of school to pursue esports on a professional or amateur level,” she stated. “We hope that being able to compete under scholarship at the university provides them a safe support structure where they can continue to get their degree, but pursue their passions in esports at the same time.”

“We hope that having a varsity team with support staff also makes it easier for professional organizations looking for the next competitive player or staff member to add to their roster,” she continued. “I also intend that this program structure will introduce a number of networking opportunities between the support staff and the business and strategic operations in the world of gaming and esports business… or in business in general. Though gaming specific, the skills learned in supporting this program are applicable to many different industries and departments that will give students an edge in entering the workforce.”

Dimick and Klingsieck are not the only ones who see importance in the Utah Varsity Esports program. In the backdrop one of Southern California’s oldest tech hubs, Jesse Wang, esports coordinator at University of California, Irvine, envisions a positive, macro-scale effect from Utah’s venture. “It’s great to see more and more universities build esports programs,” enthused Wang. “More schools will begin following the footsteps of UCI and Utah like a domino effect as collegiate esports keeps growing.”

“I hope that this becomes a program and structure that beomces the norm in many other academic institutions, just just on the collegiate level, but at every level where there are students with gaming interests,” said Klingsieck.

Esports is on the cusp of potentially breaking into society’s consciousness, not just as some niche gaming trend, but as an institution that offers real value and opportunity for students, players, and communities as a whole. Both Dimick and Klingsieck informed me that the University of Utah administration has been very supportive of this endeavor. This trend bodes well for the growth of esports, as more and more schools, sports franchises, businesses, entrepenuers, and others recognize its value. 

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David Wise is an associate editor with the Collegiate StarLeague. His work has been published by Blizzard Entertainment, LiquidHearth, and ROOT Gaming, among others. He also believes that Hearthstone is a gateway drug to the cardboard crack they call Magic: the Gathering. You can find him on Twitter.

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