Local universities’ esports programs highlight absence at Webster

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From the days of debate of whether video games are “real sports” to games being showcased on ESPN, the world of esports has undoubtedly grown into an industry titan. With the esports industry generating millions of dollars and cultures dedicated to the esports scene, colleges and universities are inspired and want a piece of the pie.

In Missouri alone, 25 higher education institutions have entered collegiate esports. Maryville University leads the pack with 22 major tournament winnings, esports scholarship offerings and an evolving esports infrastructure. The university recently announced its plans to construct a 3,000 seat multipurpose arena that would house the university’s esports team and host tournaments.

“I believe in a world where every student at any level has the opportunity to compete on a stage in front of their proud friends and family and feel the thrill of competition,” Daniel Clerke, Maryville University’s Director of Esports, said. “Maryville will continue to set the bar.”

As it stands, Webster University is behind the curve in offering similar esports programs.

Matthew Burton, a game design instructor at Webster University, has attended several meetings with Webster faculty and staff members in the past year to discuss incorporating esports into the game design program.

Sverdrup Hall’s ongoing west wing construction will add a computer lab focused on game design, which means Webster will soon have equipment and furniture that works for esports.

However, the meetings ended after some of the attendees left due to the university’s voluntary separation incentive program. Otherwise known as a “buyout authority,” the program incentivizes eligible employees to resign or retire in exchange for a lump-sum severance payment of up to $25,000 from their institution.

Ultimately, an esports program is a university decision rather than a program that would spawn from a student organization. Currently, the university has other matters in mind.

“[Webster University’s] primary focus has to be on the academics,” Eric Rothenbuhler, School of Communications Dean, said. “For us right now in the gaming world, our academic program is game design.”

The university’s receptiveness toward student-led esports initiatives has been a telling journey.

In 2016, then-sophomore game design major Patty Rausch looked to start an esports team for the university. Rausch envisioned creating a multi-games-focused esports club where players could compete in esports like “Overwatch,” “League of Legends,” “SMITE” and other games based on public interest.

To gauge interest for an esports club, Rausch collected signatures at a student orientation event in the University Center. By the end of the day, they received over 60 signatures.  Rausch brought the list of signatures to Kevin Taylor, the program coordinator of animation and game design at the time, who was equally excited to get the esports club backed by administration to become a program.

In the months to come, the seeds of Rausch’s labor started to bear fruit. Rausch recruited, coached and facilitated teams for “Overwatch,” “League of Legends” and “SMITE.” Members would build and work on in-game strategies. With the wind in their sails, all was smiles and GGs – until Taylor got back to Rausch.

“There were some hold-ups, [Taylor] mentioned that there were going to be budget changes and they would review it, but unfortunately, Webster didn’t approve it,” Rausch said. “By ‘not approving it’ I mean that they didn’t really give me or [Taylor] any answers and we just assumed it wasn’t going to happen.”

At the end of the academic year, Taylor left the university and the club was eventually phased out. Over Rausch’s next two years at the university, new students would ask them about the club, and the only answer they could give students was “I tried.”

“I was just a college student trying to get my degree and also start something huge,” Rausch said. “This was an entire saga of my life that I sunk a lot of energy into and saw almost nothing come out of it.”

Six years later, other students have tried to get the ball rolling. Esports clubs have been formed and students have made budgeting proposals for the university to fund an esports program, yet there’s still no esports implementation to be found at Webster.

While Webster, Rausch and the students that came after them weren’t able to come to a consensus, other universities have made more progress towards esports programs, as is the case with Saint Louis University and Nicholas Chiu.

During Chiu’s freshman year, he founded the Saint Louis University club esports team mostly to play and host Super Smash Bros. tournaments with friends and local competitors. However, the hangout spot ultimately turned into a beacon for Saint Louis University gamers in need.

“I realized that there weren’t any spaces for gamers to play any video games at all,” Chiu said. “I felt really bad seeing students not having a community to go to.”

With the help of Clerke from Maryville University, Chiu was able to get his administration’s attention during his junior year. He was allowed to create varsity teams for “Overwatch” and “League of Legends,” even allowing players to be recruited from outside of St. Louis. In Chiu’s senior year, he became the university’s first official esports program director. The club now has over 200 members and offers games to compete in on a professional or casual level.

“It’s gone from nothing to everything in literally four years It was faster than any other program that’s arrived at SLU,” Chiu said. “But, I think that with that being so fast, it’s daunting to the [administration] because they’re seeing the fastest rise of any program.”

In light of Webster University’s history of esports, Chiu offers words of advice and encouragement for eager esports fans at Webster University.

“Even I had a tough time talking to [administration] about the resources that we could get, but you have to go above and beyond as a student leader and become a leader for the university itself,” Chiu said. “Going up and talking to administration . . . if they care enough, they’ll be able to sit down and listen to you. Because once you’re able to get your foot on the table, you’re able to talk to them as equals and not just as a superior.”

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