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The next wave of varsity athletes will be video gamers

Esports member Lucas Pickering practices in the club sports game room in SquashBusters. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In a move that is well-suited to the realities of COVID-19, Northeastern will be elevating its esports teams to varsity status in the fall. 

Competitive video-gaming seems to be built for the “new normal” environment of physical distancing and online networking. But Northeastern’s intention to become the first Division 1 university in New England to compete in varsity esports was being pursued long before the pandemic.

“We’ve been exploring it since 2018,” says Jeff Konya, the athletic director at Northeastern. “Varsity esports is taking off nationwide, and to be ahead of the curve in the Northeast is going to allow us to really shape our expectations and give us a leg up on the competition.”

The Huskies have been an esports powerhouse for years. They won the Collegiate Rocket League national championship in 2017 and finished second last year in Hearthstone in the National Varsity Division (the Huskies had reached the criteria for varsity status long before making it official).

They’ve developed a deep roster that will include 27 students in varsity esports in the fall; another 150 are currently in Northeastern’s esports club, and 600 more are involved with the program casually.

Students play multiplayer video games in the team room at the SquashBusters recreational facility on Northeastern’s Boston campus, where students in the university’s esports clubs practice and compete in league games. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern joins Ohio State, Boise State, and Missouri as Division 1 schools with varsity esports programs. More than 25 million people in the U.S. viewed esports in 2018, and the gaming audiences on YouTube and Twitch have outgrown the combined viewership of HBO, Netflix, and ESPN.

“In the current environment, gamers can participate virtually, and the content can be consumed virtually,” Konya says. “The League of Legends tournament had more content viewership than the Super Bowl.”

Northeastern launched its esports narrative two years ago when Konya assigned an assistant, Nick Avery, to investigate the potential of the platform. Konya and Avery have traditional sports backgrounds—Konya was a football player at Princeton, and Avery wrestled at Indiana—but both were open-minded to the new era of esports.

“I went from a skeptic to a full believer very quickly,” says Avery, Northeastern’s associate director of club sports and esports, who attended gaming conferences and events as part of his investigation. “I was fully bought-in and thinking that we can either be the pioneers and lead this thing into the future, or we can be chasing everybody else.”

Northeastern will be competing in the video games Overwatch, League of Legends, Rocket League, and Hearthstone. Scholarships may be available for esports in future, as is already the case at other universities. Students may have opportunities to manage the streaming, production, and casting of Northeastern’s live gaming events. 

The Huskies are trying to hire four coaches—one for each esports competition—and an on-campus space that has been established for gaming competitions could be expanded to accommodate physical distancing in the fall, Avery says.

Since Konya became athletic director in 2018, he has created a marketing partnership with TD Garden, and negotiated an agreement with NESN to televise up to 75 Northeastern contests annually. In the post-pandemic world, Konya envisions that Matthews Arena—with its state-of-the-art video board—could be an excellent venue for in-person tournaments.

“I think there will be a lot of opportunities to partner with sponsors and businesses in esports,” Konya says. “Academically, we should be able to help design some courses and create co-op opportunities in the esports and gaming platform.”

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