Esports team

Members of the Kent State Esports team compete in a tournament. 

Kent State is a founding member of the newly created Esports Collegiate Conference announced by the Mid-American Conference (MAC) on June 10. The conference is aimed at fostering high-quality gaming competition among collegiate esports teams. 

“I think the conference adds legitimacy to esports in general, because even a year ago it was the Wild West. And now that we have a set conference for people, we’ll be able to make connections and play teams more consistently,” said Ben Vrobel, a varsity Rocket League player and sophomore public relations major at Kent State.

The Esports Collegiate Conference (ESC) will provide structure, scheduling and championship opportunities for its membership. 

“It means a lot to us at Kent State because it allows us to grow in the tournaments we’re actually competing in,” said Maria Hawkins, director of esports operations at Kent State. 

In addition to tournament opportunities, Hawkins said the ESC may expand the amount of players interested in esports. While some players aspire to play professionally, other players want to pursue a career in the esports field, such as game design or engineering. 

“I’m in public relations as my major right now, and stuff like managing social media for a team is definitely something I’ve been thinking about going into, and it would really help if I had those connections through the conference,” Vrobel said. 

The conference will enhance internship and professional opportunities for those involved, Hawkins said.

“We can have students get involved in how we’re hosting the events, they can be there to help run the show; We do broadcasting,” she said. “It gives them an opportunity and an outlet to see what’s new and out there for them.”

The ESC is an independent entity and will operate separately from the MAC, which handles the athletic side of the program. 

“With the rules of esports and the Title IX issues, we cannot be associated with the athletic side of it,” Hawkins said. 

Competition will begin with the 2020-2021 academic year with fall and spring seasons. Kent State players currently compete in game titles for Overwatch, League of Legends, Hearthstone and Rocket League. Each title has its own specialized team. 

The game title for Kent State’s new fifth team has not been announced yet, Hawkins said.

A seven-member Competition Committee was established to oversee scheduling, game title selection, championship format and infrastructure issues. The committee is exploring a third game for the ESC like Hearthstone, a digital collectible card game, or Rocket League, a vehicular soccer game, Hawkins said.  

“We’re looking at those new games out there and the games that are peaking interest to all players to see what fits best,” Hawkins said. “It could bring in a new title and a new game for us to start playing.” 

For each game title, a team receives a bracket with a certain number of matches and teams, just like any other sporting event. An Esports Collegiate Champion will be crowned in each game title, with the champion representing the ESC in an automatic bid to the national postseason tournament.

Kent State’s esports program is entering its second year of competition. 

“I like the fan base. I like the general energy all around, and it feels like a kind of sport that people who aren’t into traditional sports can get into,” said Tom Palcic, a varsity Overwatch player and sophomore criminal justice student at Kent State. 

The Kent State team has advanced to collegiate national finals twice in the past year, and it brought home the first place prize in Hearthstone from the Harrisburg University Invitational

“We always strive to win, we always want to be up there, but winning isn’t everything at Kent State,” Hawkins said. “The idea is to have a unique program and something that interests players to come to our university.”  

Hawkins noted that interest in esports has spiked, with nearly 300 people participating in tryouts and more interest from high school, transfer and international students. 

“I think the announcement is a really big step to increase the awareness with how popular esports is becoming,” said Paul Rondeau, the League of Legends manager and sports administration senior at Kent State. 

Kent State’s varsity esports team has 32 rostered players, which include substitutes, coaches and management. The esports team plans to expand its roster heading into the fall season, adding a fifth varsity team. With this change, the roster will grow to nearly 50 people.

The ESC’s other founding members are the University of Akron, Ball State University, Bowling Green State University, University at Buffalo, Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Miami University, Northern Illinois University, Ohio University, University of Toledo and Western Michigan University. 

Of course, the Kent State’s esports team’s biggest rival is Akron. The team also looks forward to playing Miami University and the University at Buffalo, a team Kent State just started to play, Hawkins said.  

Each university and program had the authority to create their own requirements and guidelines. 

“There’s a lot of restrictions we have, and we focus on them just as much as athletics does,” Hawkins said.  

The Kent State players noted that there are certain misconceptions that come with playing esports. 

“When I was telling certain people in my life that I wanted to pursue something more down the video game route instead of what I was doing, there isn’t much of a support system,” said Rondeau. “Without actually being educated on it or knowing the opportunities that lie within the field of esports, people immediately think negatively about it and think, ‘Oh, if you want to do something within video games, you’re going to be unsuccessful.’” 

The varsity players are eligible to receive scholarships from $300 to the full cost of tuition, depending on their skills and their academic merit. “’I’m playing video games to pay for my tuition,” Palcic said. 

Varsity players are held to grade point average (GPA) minimum standards and are expected to participate in study tables and mandatory advising, and complete satisfactory progress toward a degree to remain eligible by university guidelines.

Team members are expected to participate in group physical training and conditioning as well as undergo interventions to prevent repetitive strain of their wrist, backs and eyes. They also have access to a nutritionist, sport psychologist and other support staff who work one-on-one with players to help them maintain a healthy lifestyle.

A new competition and broadcast facility will open in the Kent State Library for the esports team this summer. It will allow 6v6 head to head competition with professional production and broadcast specifications. The space also has support for varsity player coaching, team review and academic space to serve student development in broadcast and post-production skills. 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and guidelines from the university, Kent State esports tryouts will be conducted remotely in July through a Discord server. Players will be placed into brackets and scrimmage against other players in tryouts. 

“They watch how the players are playing — their mechanics, their communication skills — we look at every single element of the game,” Hawkins said. “It’s not just about what your rank is. It’s how you communicate, how you’re working with your teammates, what plays you’re coming up with.” 

Starting in the fall 2020 semester, the residential esports theme community will be located in Korb Hall on Kent State’s campus. In addition to the varsity esports program, over 600 students are active members in an online esports community, and there are 16 registered “club” chapters playing games like NBA2K or Super Smash Brothers.

For more information on the Kent State esports program, visit www.kent.edu/esports

Contact Jenna Borthwick at jborthw1@kent.edu.

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