CRANFORD, NJ — Students at Union County College will soon be battling dragons, pulling off high-flying stunts in futuristic cars and maneuvering tricked-out robots on co-op missions.
But they’ll be doing all this from the comfort of their own chairs as part of the community college’s new competitive esports program. These teams of video gamers that compete against two and four-year institutions throughout the United States and Canada.
“The addition of the esports program will open an entire world of college athletics for Union’s gamers,” Dean of College Life Tammy Smith said in a statement. “The benefits of competing at a high level, earning a degree, and understanding the importance of teamwork will allow them to gain the life skills necessary to become successful individuals.”
Esports has seen a boom in recent years. Retired NBA All-Star Shaquille O’Neal and former Major League Baseball All-Stars Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins invested in esports teams in 2016, ESPN reported.
There were 43 million unique viewers of a 2016 League of Legends championship, according to the tournament’s website. The number of viewers keeps rising by the millions each year, too.
“This is something that’s booming,” said Assistant Dean of College Life Rebecca May. “It’s the next billion dollar industry … It’s insane.”
Union County College is now a member of the National Association of Collegiate Esports, or NACE, a nonprofit group that consists of of varsity esports programs at about 63 colleges and universities. The program will begin in the fall.
These aren’t “gamers” in the usual sense. They’re college athletes who will have to meet minimum GPA requirements, like other traditional student athletes.
There will also be a head coach and assistants to train the co-ed teams, May said. Ten students will be on each team for League of Legends, Rocket League and Overwatch. All are online multiplayer battle arena games, in which teams battle either in-game “bots” or groups controlled by other players.
May said the idea came from the League of Legends club already present on campus. May said she hopes the new program will ultimately help with enrollment and graduation rates at UCC.
“Once they make friends — once they feel like they have more of a purpose — they definitely follow through with graduation,” she said of students in a May 2 phone interview. “It’s just another group of students who may not make the soccer team … but they’re seeking involvement.”
The esports program requires high speed computers and special gaming chairs, which will be in place on the Cranford campus, and students from all the college’s campuses will be eligible to participate on the teams, May said.
Coaches haven’t been named yet, and May said she hopes enough students show interest in the program to hold team tryouts. Those with an interest in joining a team are encouraged to reach out before the end of June.
To learn more about the community college’s esports program or to sign up for a team, email the Office of College Life at Rebecca.firstname.lastname@example.org.