Are esports legit? Student gamers say 'Yes'

By Charlie Bier for La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayett

Ian Madray, a doctoral student in electrical engineering, was a varsity wrestler at Lafayette High School. Whether he’s a collegiate student-athlete is open to debate.

Madray is president of the Ragin’ Cajun Esports Team. Electronic sports, or esports, are multiplayer video game contests. They’re considered sporting events by some, sedentary video game competitions by others.

Who’s right? It seems not even sports “experts” can make up their minds.

Consider John Skipper, former president of ESPN. When asked about esports in 2014, Skipper said: “It’s not a sport – it’s a competition. Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition. Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports.”

In 2015, however, the media conglomerate – with Skipper still at the helm – devoted an entire issue of its magazine to esports. ESPN now covers tournaments on its TV channels, and has a section devoted entirely to competitive gaming coverage on its website.

ESPN isn’t alone. The International Olympic Committee has considered adding esports to its games.

Teams and leagues are sprouting up across college and university campuses at lightning speed. There are now about 130 varsity teams in the United States, according to the National Association of Collegiate Esports, a nonprofit governing body formed in 2016 with seven schools as members.

Esports’ standing on college campuses, however, is as ill-defined as it is in the world of sport.

At some institutions, esports are classified as club sports or campus organizations. Other schools fold esports into academic curriculums and research areas such as engineering, or computing and informatics.

“Esports is in a weird spot. What I would like to see is an identity for esports established at our University,” Madray stated.

He’s doing his part to make that happen.

During the Spring 2018 semester, Madray became president of the University’s newly formed esports team. The team was created when several existing clubs on campus merged.

The consolidated club now has about 60 members. They play about eight styles of games, with objectives such as driving rocket-powered autos into large balls during soccer-like contests.

In most cases, between two and six players can compete in individual competitions. Which team members play at which tournaments can depend on several factors, including whose schedule is clear or who’s most skilled at a given game.

Club members compete at contests that the club organizes at campus venues such as the UL Lafayette Student Union Ballroom, the LITE Center and F.G. Mouton Hall, depending on space availability. Team members also hit the road, and have fared well at tournaments in Arlington, Texas; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Atlanta.

Grassroots efforts by the Ragin’ Cajun Esports Team’s nine-member executive board include public relations, fundraising, outreach and organizing tournaments. The club is almost completely self-funded.

“Our goal is to attract esports businesses to come to this state and make Louisiana a viable place for the growth of esports. The potential of esports is limitless,” Madray said.

Revenue generated by esports is estimated to be $1.1 billion worldwide in 2019, an increase of 27 percent since last year, according to Newzoo, a gaming industry analytics firm. In 2015, esports revenue was about $250 million. Advertising, merchandise sales, sponsorships and media rights are just some of the ways esports generate revenue.

Dr. Ramesh Kolluru, the University’s vice president for Research, Innovation and Economic Development, is assisting with the formation of an advisory panel to consider the future of the University’s esports club. The panel will include representatives from a range of departments and offices, including athletics, academics and research.

“It will evaluate how a potential team would be structured – whether it be a varsity team, a recreational sport or a student organization. Or, it could possibly be a blended model,” Kolluru explained.

The panel will explore designating one place on campus for esports competitions, player recruitment, potential funding, and how to possibly integrate esports into academics and research.

It will also evaluate ways to attract esports-related businesses to Acadiana.

“If it’s a billion-dollar industry, we’re going to do all that we can to research the viability of esports, and ways that having a team could benefit the University, the community and the state,” Kolluru said.

Photo: Ian Madray, president of the 60-member Ragin’ Cajun Esports Team, concentrates on fine-tuning his skills. (University of Louisiana at Lafayette/Doug Dugas)

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