By Kate Hoving
If you are not quite sure either about what esports is—yes, it’s singular—or why it merits a feature in World Minded, it would be totally understandable. However, William & Mary’s esports initiative and its international connections have taken root and are growing.
Some data set the scene:
Global esports in 2022
- Audience: 532 million
- Audience Growth: +8.7 % per year
- Revenue Generation: $1.38 billion
- Regional potential: One of the fastest-rising regions is Latin America, expected to hit $42 million in esports revenue by 2023, per PwC estimates.
Meeting with the provost
At Esports Community Day last fall, Provost Peggy Agouris recalled her first encounter with esports at William & Mary. “One nice day in fall 2019, a group of people walked into my office and gave me the most coordinated and exciting presentation that I had ever heard up to that point at William & Mary. Karen [Connor], Terry [Trojak) and Michele [King] walked in and they sat around the table and said, ‘We have an idea.’”¹
Agouris found their idea compelling: to start something new in an area that W&M wasn’t known for, and yet, “combines the spirit of what it is to be a William & Mary student--the excellence, the creativity and the competitive drive to excel.”
The provost’s question to them at the time, was “How can we become pioneers in this?”
Pioneering an esports infrastructure
King feels part of her mission is to make sure W&M is known as not simply a participant player in esports, but a unique one.
And so, King and her colleagues first researched how they wanted to set up the varsity gamers. They decided to join EGF—Electronic Gaming Federation— the Division I governing body for esports. EGFC League states in its mission that it places “an equal emphasis on competition, academics, and the physical and mental well-being of our students. EGFC’s game-agnostic approach to collegiate esports ensures that our programs are sustainable for the long term.”
But mere membership in EFG was not enough.
“We are with 47 other Division I schools, and there were seven Board of Governors members, and I said, ‘Well, William & Mary’s got to be a pioneer. We’ve got to do this.’” King ran for their Board of Governors and was elected.
And as a result of that election, King and William & Mary caught the eye of Zsuzsa James, Team Finland Coordinator for the Video Games & Esports Consulate General of Finland in Los Angeles, who was seeking input on best practices for expanding Finland’s esports industry.
In April 2021, King was invited to be a speaker at a roundtable—“Building a Supportive Esports Ecosystem”—sponsored by Finns & Friends of Esports of the Finland Trade Commission. “They’re not members of EGF, but they know of EGF because of the prestige it has, and they wanted someone from the education realm,” says King.
“They had people from the industry from all over the world, but they had only one person from education, and that was me.”
King’s biggest takeaway from the roundtable?
“We are so far behind. We need to decide, are we going to stand on the sidelines, or are we going to get in the game to prepare our students for this billion-dollar industry?”
As is probably clear by now, ‘standing on the sidelines’ is not in King’s nature.
Preparing students for a new landscape
In March 2019, W&M founded the Esports Training and Research Center (ETARC). It is set up as a collaborative and interdisciplinary program by design.
King understands that among students, there are going to be different levels of involvement in esports, as well as areas of interest. And that’s ok with King.
“Some of [the students] are on the club level, some of them are actually with the varsity level and that’s the beauty of what we’re doing; we’re doing both the academic and applied. The academic is the learning and the classes. The applied is the competitive varsity level. You put those two together, and we have such a beautiful, experiential opportunity for our students.”
The esports industry encompasses multiple roles and opportunities, and ETARC will provide space to develop any and all of the possibilities for students. “Like the NFL, not everyone’s going to be an athlete on the field. But you’ve got producers, casters [similar to play-by-play in sports], event planners, as well as statisticians and data analysts,” King explains. “We can prepare our students. We can get them pipelines into this growing industry and prepare them for this new landscape.”
In addition to career preparation, William & Mary will also focus on wellness and community. “It is a missing piece in the esports industry, so I want W&M to pioneer and be the first premier university to research and to focus on wellness and the flourishing gamer,” King states. “That’s why we’re partnering and working with Dr. Kelly Crace, Director of the W&M CMAX (Center for Mindfulness and Authentic Excellence) and the Wellness Center. We want to make sure that they are flourishing.”
Global Reach: W&M and esports in the world
“Esports are dynamic creations, becoming cultural phenomena which attracts thousands of eager viewers. Their existence has been international since their inception [in South Korea in the 2000s]. Yet they have also been hugely overlooked, and only now are receiving the acknowledgement that they deserve….”²
In 2019 Tyler Brent ’15 hosted an eSports Envoy during his tour at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou. The program is an initiative of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) at the U.S. State Department. “We worked with ECA’s Office of Sports Diplomacy to bring both an NBA player and an NBA2k player to China for a week of programming.” Michael “BearDaBeast” Key was the eSports Envoy, joined by NBA Player Bonzi Wells. In an interview after his experience, Key was surprised by his reception in China:
“It was actually crazy. I was with a former NBA player, so when I see Bonzi Wells walk into an arena and kids are going crazy and screaming, and then I walk into an esports arena and they are going crazy, for me too it’s amazing to see. The reaction Bonzi got was the same reaction I got and that was pretty cool. Esports is huge over there.
“Here we might see singers or actors on posters as advertisements. Over there, they have gamers and controllers on posters and advertisements. It’s so different. I can’t describe how big it is. How we go to an arcade, they have gaming centers and places to game in high schools.”³
Key’s assessment of opportunities in 2019 notwithstanding, today in the U.S. today, gamers have increasing options at universities, let alone high school. In the U.S., the esports industry has been gaining momentum in higher education and is picking up speed. Membership in the two major national organizations—the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) and EGF—tops 200 and universities around the world are also enthusiastic.
Crossing national borders
Barrett Ratzlaff ’22 majored in Chinese language and culture and worked as the peer assistant for international events for ISSP. His game is Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and he received the 2020-2021 Green & Gold Leadership Award from William & Mary’s esports program. The Green & Gold (GG) Leadership Award is bestowed upon the individual who most “inspires others to work creatively and collaboratively by promoting a positive, respectful and supportive environment. The recipient demonstrates initiative to organize events and champion the values, goals and mission of the W&M Academic & Applied Esports program.”
Ratzlaff sees the way esports reaches across cultural boundaries. “Apart from the NBA and soccer, I can’t think of many sports that a considerable chunk of American and international students both enjoy. There are several international students working on the applied side of the esports program, and many more that are fans and players themselves. Different places favor different games, but everyone is experiencing the same growth that comes from competing.”
Why does he think esports is such a global phenomenon? “The barriers to entry are lower than most competitive outlets, and it’s easier to popularize video games than regular sports,” Ratzlaff explains. “A sport is popular in a certain region because over decades or even centuries that sport became synonymous with a culture. A video game doesn’t have that same kind of process. Something can become popular overnight. The Internet is the main reason why it’s global.”
Ratzlaff started playing video games in 2008 with Pokemon Emerald, so although the esports program didn’t exist when he was applying to college, he sees the value of the esports program, “providing a place where people are able to compete in a healthy way and experience growth. Hundreds of people are part of the esports program and can experience that to some degree. As for the international community, it provides yet another way for us to make our campus a global one. For two roommates, it might be a common interest that forms a friendship. For two members of the esports program, it can provide an avenue to push each other to work hard and improve. I think it’s only natural for people to learn more about themselves when they do things like that.”
One of William & Mary’s varsity players is Jacob Karen ’23, a double major in business analytics data science and computer science. He is from Northern Virginia but coaches internationally. Karen plays Rocket League and has developed a name for himself as both a player and a coach of the MENA Saudi Arabian Rocket League Pro Team, WaVii. Their manager contacted Karen on Discord, asking him to try out as their coach. He didn’t think he had a chance, but they hired him, and from there his reputation and skill in playing and coaching has grown.
One thing he has learned is how strategies—or metas—differ in different parts of the world. “Between NA (North America) and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) there’s a huge difference. There is also a difference between NA and the EU. “EU players are generally known to play more of a team-based style, more passing. U.S. players are known to play more aggressively, but with a set and tight rotation compared to the Middle East, which has no rotation and they hit the ball as hard as they can. In a region like the Middle East, the meta of the game is completely different than in other regions, because it’s just developing there. So when you have a coach from the United States go over to the to the Middle East and teach them meta that is played in other countries or United States specifically, they learn and adapt to that meta and end up beating teams in their region with the U.S. meta.”
As their coach, his team’s success reflects on him. “As my team grows and develops and becomes one of the better teams in the region, they start to get a global fan base. The coach is not overlooked, because when a team goes from nothing to the top it’s generally not just the team that did that themselves.”
He also learns ways to improve his own game. “It’s funny because, even as a coach, if I looked at my own replays and didn’t know they were my replays I’d be able to help myself.”
An admissions draw
Dirk Go MBA ’22 did not expect to find esports at William & Mary. “I was initially surprised because I thought an esports focus was more implemented by smaller academic institutions and private esports club startups (based on what I’ve heard and seen on news or in social media).” The program factored into his decision to attend W&M. He had narrowed his choices down to three: Olin (Washington University), R.H. Smith (University of Maryland), and Mason (W&M). “After considering value, cost of living, and crime rate, W&M stands out by having an esports program (in development),” Go explains. “Being able to tap into this development stage as well as a networking platform was the deciding factor for me. I plan to utilize the resource once I am ready to start my esports business in the Philippines.”
Originally from Tagum, Philippines, Go is sanguine about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. “In the United States, there is a low barrier to ‘trial/testing’ gaming skills. Almost everyone can save up and buy a video game console and still have the basic needs (not going hungry, medical insurance taken care of, government assistance, etc.) taken care of. On top of this, one can enjoy the gradual development that comes with participating in esports on a middle school team, high school team, college team, professional clubs, and other avenues. There are also small and semi-pro leagues where you can test your skills. And if you do not want to be a gamer, trying out for esports commentators or ‘casters’ is also possible with the mentioned avenues.
“In the Philippines however, there are no gradual development or professional leagues to try on. There is only ‘rank up as fast as possible until a wealthy sponsor or club notices me and gives me a contract’ way. There are smaller leagues to gain visibility, but the prize money is not high enough to warrant the majority of aspirants to give up their traditional occupations (even if I think they have the talent to be professional gamers). I aim to create a business platform where the majority of aspirants will be given a fair look and the opportunity to showcase their talents without the feeling of having the need to risk it all.”
Go believes the esports program adds value not just to business students, but also to the university as a whole. “Having an esports program conveys the message that gaming is not simply for leisure anymore. It is a real avenue that can change the world. It needs to be studied, examined intricately, networked vigorously, and developed to its utmost potential to create positive change. Because for me, why study or learn something, if there is no positive change that can be shared and felt along with it?”
Karen agrees that future students will find the esports program appealing, but there needs to be an effort to market it. “If you advertise that you have that, people will come specifically for it, but I think if you just have it and invite current students you’re not going to find too many people to change their major. So I think it would have to be something where you actually say, ‘Look, William & Mary is considering adding this.’”
From avocation to vocation
Go entered William & Mary with the expectation of making esports his career, and more and more students, seeing opportunities they didn’t know before existed, are getting internships and jobs from their esports experience.
At Commencement, King met Stephanie Murphy ’00 and learned that Murphy is co-chair of the U.S. Video Games & Esports caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, another new facet of the world of esports.
Karen has recently begun considering the idea of getting into working with esports organizations and tournament management. “I’m not really sure how I would get into it, but being involved with coaching professionally allows me to make some connections in the industry.”
Hannah Smith ’21 majored in business administration (marketing) with a concentration in business analytics, and she is now Employee Engagement Coordinator at Epic Games. (Epic Games is a global company based in North Carolina and known for Fortnite, among other games.) Her work there focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Smith was William & Mary’s first female captain, leading the W&M FIFA team. As a student she had an internship with the Pittsburgh Knights, a major esports team, but didn’t forget her William & Mary esports colleagues. “She connected me with [the Knights’] communications director, and I was able to sit on a roundtable for women in esports,” King says.
It’s that kind of commitment and networking during and after her undergraduate years that earned Smith the first Griffin Spirit Award as “the individual who embodies the W&M Academic & Applied Esports program values and mission of ‘community.’ The recipient exemplifies team spirit through words and actions by encouraging fellow varsity gamers, promoting Tribe Pride and initiative opportunities to bolster the program.”
Flourishing: accolades and action plans
With each class, Michele King anticipates the networking potential will continue, and she shows no signs of resting on her virtual laurels.
In fact, she just garnered new laurels. The National Association of Esports Coaches and Directors (NAECAD)—the primary professional organization for competitive esports coaches and directors at all levels of competitive play (club, high school, college, and professional)—just notified King she has received their 2021-2022 National Esports Collegiate Director of the Year award.
As for Karen, he is spending his summer in Washington, D.C. He is an intern for Congressman David Trone (D-MD 6th District), working on various public outreach and legislative issues. “I’ve also just accepted a second internship that starts the end of July with [a global management consulting firm] called Tunabear. I’m contracted independently through them, and I’ll be working on Celonis software.” Celonis is a data processing company founded in Munich, Germany, that sells process mining software to improve business processes. Karen has been coaching a German Nitro League team aand will volunteer as a coach for his old high school’s new esports program. And although he couldn’t mention the team until it’s official, “The end of the spring, early summer, an owner from a European esports organization approached me to help build a team of Rocket Launch players, from recruiting and contract negotiations to coaching. It would be probably a 6-month to one-year contract. They want me to help them compete at a very high level.”
As King says: “Game on!”
¹ The trio that met with Agouris formed the Esports Advisory Board: Michele King, Speech Professor, Theatre, Speech & Dance and Director of Esports. Karen Conner, Director of Academic Innovation, Raymond A. Mason School of Business; Terry Trojak, Senior Creative Producer, Academic Innovation, Raymond A. Mason School of Business. John Drummond, Technology Space Strategist (EAB), did not attend that specific meeting, but he is a founding member of the EAB.