With the short-term future of sports in question amid the coronavirus pandemic, Howard Community College is starting a sports program that can survive in a virtual format.
The college announced June 16 that it will launch esports as its 12th athletic program. The team will compete in the New England Collegiate Conference, which is starting its esports league this fall as well.
“It’s really exciting,” said Erin Foley, Howard Community College’s director of athletics. “It’s bringing another side of competition to the collegiate environment. It opens up a broader opportunity for students who love video games to transfer that to their academics and their career.”
Esports programs aren’t common in college athletics, but with the popularity of gaming and esports on the rise, some institutions have started to see value in them. In 2019, the U.S. video game industry generated a record $35.4 billion in revenue, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Several content creators on Twitch, a live-streaming platform, play video games like “Call of Duty,” “Fortnite” and “Valorant” and make millions from subscribers, YouTube revenue and advertisers.
In Maryland, a few colleges like Hood College, Stevenson University and Mount St. Mary’s have esports programs. Foley believes HCC starting its esports program now will pay dividends in the future.
“Esports is one of the fastest-growing programs from an intercollegiate standpoint in the country,” Foley said. “We wanted to get in on that trend and be on the front of it. It’s something we feel is great for student engagement, and it’s a great way to bring students into the fold who maybe wouldn’t be otherwise.”
The coordinator of HCC’s esports team, Mark Winkel, said this has been a goal of his for a few years. He believes in the future of esports at the collegiate level, and he’s excited to start the program at HCC.
“I’ve been trying to get esports at colleges I’ve worked at for the last four years,” said Winkel, who is manager for sports information at HCC. “I’ve been a casual gamer for most of my life. I have a friend who is a video game designer. I’ve seen the trend for a few years about how esports could blow up. The industry is really booming.”
Despite the excitement, the first semester for the esports program will be altered due to the coronavirus. Athletes will compete and practice exclusively from home rather than in person. Once the virus subsides, though, Winkel said the esports team and its athletes will be treated like any other on campus.
Over the course of only a few weeks, Winkel said HCC has received more than 25 questionnaire responses from prospective student-athletes. With community colleges serving as a way for students to determine their path after two years, Winkel said the esports program is a good way for local gamers to both get a college education and enjoy and grow their passion for video games.
“There has already been so much interest,” Winkel said. “Within 30 minutes of the press release going out, I had five kids send in the interest form.”
Jacob VanRyn, New England Collegiate Conference commissioner, said the conference is expecting 20 to 25 teams from schools of different sizes for its inaugural season. The games the NECC will feature are “Fortnite,” “League of Legends,” “Madden,” “FIFA,” “Overwatch,” “Rocket League,” “Super Smash Bros.” and possibly other titles. In the fall, HCC will compete in “League of Legends” and “Overwatch”; in the spring, the college will have a “Rocket League” team.
While the details are still being determined, VanRyn said it’s important to have the esports league be just like any other league in the NECC, which is a NCAA Division III conference.
“[The presidents of the NECC’s member schools] recognized the importance and that it would help recruitment and retention efforts for their institutions,” VanRyn said. “With regards to esports, we wanted to do it just like any of our other sports with a full league schedule and everything else.”
Current member schools of the NECC will be involved, as will some Division I, II and III schools and community colleges like HCC. VanRyn said the announcement of the esports teams will come in July.
“The beautiful thing about esports is that a team in our conference, like Becker College [in Massachusetts], can compete with Ohio State,” VanRyn said. “If we sent the Becker men’s basketball team out to Columbus to compete with them, they’d lose by 100. But esports is different. I think that’s wonderful, and I think that’s what’s awesome about it.”