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Varsity video games: Why Michigan universities are investing in the growing world of esports

A person playing video games with screens showing games above him
Florian Olivo
As the popularity of esports grows, more Michigan colleges and universities are investing in esports programs, stadiums, and scholarships.

Remember the first time you outraced your sibling in Mario Kart? Or, back in the heyday of arcades, the rush of seeing your name pop up on the high score board for Pac-Man? Well, the thrill of competitive video gaming isn't limited to living rooms and arcades anymore as esports teams take their place among traditional college athletics.

While smaller colleges were some of the first to invest in esports programs, larger universities are getting in on the game, too. Western Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, and the University of Michigan all now have varsity level esports teams.

Detroiter Norris Howard is the head of collegiate esports content at Beasley Media. He's also the host and producer of the esports podcast Checkpoint XP. Howard says that many of the larger universities right now are playing catch up with the student demand for competitive teams.

“The energy behind a lot of these programs, and a lot of these teams, has grown out of student organizations. Almost all esport varsity teams started as student organizations or clubs. So, the big push right now is to get those clubs to get into the varsity point where they can get funding from the university,” Howard explained.

Tournaments are a large part of competitive gaming, and just like other college sports, esports have their own versions of a stadium. Scott Schroeder is the director of visualization at Perkins+Will, a sports architecture firm that helps their clients understand the esports scene. He says that many schools are revamping underutilized spaces like arcades and pool table rooms to host esports competitions. Usually, the most expensive part of renovating these spaces is investing in the network infrastructure. 

"Your esports program will live and die by your internet and the network within the building," Schroeder said. "You know, if you're at a football game and the internet goes out, you can still watch the football, but maybe you can't tweet about the great play. But if you're playing Dota and the internet goes out, that's it, I mean the game's done." 

While some gamers can make a living as pro esports players, Howard says the collegiate level offers other benefits for students. There are esports scholarships, and many schools tie competitive gaming into broader academic programs like animation, video game design and marketing, or even esports medicine. Those kinds of opportunities might help students justify their gaming habits to their parents.

"I mean, if you go to mom and dad and say, 'Hey, U of M offered me a $50,000 scholarship, I mean who is gonna say no to that?" Howard said. 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan. 

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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