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Champlain College’s Esports Program Launches a New Era of School Athletics

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Published October 19, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Andrew Campanella - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Andrew Campanella

Andrew Campanella's eyes narrowed in concentration as he stared at the computer monitor where the competition was growing fierce. His fingers flew across the keyboard, the keys clacking rhythmically as he engaged in a tense round of Rocket League, a multiplayer video game made for anyone who's ever wondered what it would be like to play soccer in a car you can barely control.

On the screen before him, Campanella's vehicle careened wildly across a futuristic soccer pitch before smashing into a massive ball and slamming it into the goal. A blaze of energy enveloped the goal as Campanella's vehicle pulled away, flipping in the air. The screen exploded with reports of his victory.

The Champlain College first-year student and member of the school's new esports program smiled widely and shot his arms in the air. "Yes!" he exclaimed, sitting bolt upright in his padded gaming chair and celebrating his victory as fellow classmates watched, together with Christian Konczal, the director of esports at Champlain.

It was only an exhibition match played for the benefit of a reporter, but the collective excitement around esports was hard to miss on the Champlain campus in Burlington. The school's two esports teams are the first varsity teams of any kind at Champlain since the school discontinued its athletics program more than two decades ago. And student-athletes such as Campanella, a member of the school's esports club teams, have a new, state-of-the-art esports arena in which to train and compete.

"There isn't really anything like this arena in Vermont," Konczal, 32, said during a tour of the facility, which opened its doors to students in September.

Located at the school's Miller Center at the Lakeside Campus, the arena is home to the college's varsity esports teams as well as numerous esports clubs. It features more than 25 PC gaming stations, a full suite for broadcasting — or, in the parlance of esports, "shoutcasting" — a training room stacked with even more gaming stations and a digital media lab.

The new space isn't just a hub for gamers. It's a statement of intent from a school that can see the coming wave of esports and is looking toward the future.

The term "esports" refers to competitive video gaming played for spectators, often by professional gamers, in person or online. It most often involves multiplayer games. 

Esports have exploded in popularity in recent years, with growing numbers of both players and spectators. According to data research company Statista, esports generated $243 million in revenue in the U.S. in 2021 and approximately $360 million in China.

More than 73 million TV or online viewers watched the 2021 League of Legends World Championship finals in Reykjavík, Iceland. For context, the 2021 Super Bowl pulled in 96.4 million viewers.

"This is the next generation's football," Konczal said of esports.

He pointed to a number of factors in the cultural rise of esports and gaming in general. For one, many of Konczal's current students spent their final years of high school stuck at home during the pandemic. Between earning their diplomas digitally and relying on the internet for socializing, kids spent a lot of time on computers, phones and consoles.

"During the pandemic, kids' only outlet was gaming," said Kip Steele, a Williston-based software engineer with a long history in the gaming world. "So they got good at them really quick. Not just [by] playing them but [by] watching other kids and pros play the games. What Champlain has done is adapted to this new reality, centered around gaming, and they're recruiting kids from all over the country to participate."

Champlain has a history of success with gaming programs. Its video game development program was among the first in the country when it launched in 2004. The school boasts an 85 percent hiring rate for graduates in the increasingly booming gaming industry. According to the 2022 Global Entertainment & Media Outlook report from accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, the global gaming industry is projected to be worth more than $320 billion by 2026.

But Konczal sees benefits to the school's esports arena beyond game (or job) training.

"Digital spaces have become such a part of the culture for younger people," Konczal said. "This is where they socialize, to a large degree."

"That's the other part of what we're trying to do," he went on. "We want this to not just be a place for competition but also a place where students can come and relax and hang out."

Christian Konczal - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Christian Konczal

Konczal recalled his own experience as a first-year at Johnson State College (now Northern Vermont University) in 2007. Uninterested in partying, he largely kept to his dorm room, playing online games with his high school friends. He soon transferred to the University of Vermont, where he joined a League of Legends club. The team-based battle game connected Konczal with like-minded students.

"I didn't put any social roots down at Johnson," Konczal said. "But here was a group of people I felt comfortable with at UVM. I joined, and to this day, I still play games with some of the friends I met there. That's the sort of environment we're creating here. We view this program as a student resource, not just an athletic pursuit."

In addition to playing for the club team, Campanella is a work-study employee at the arena. The 19-year-old spoke of the social connections that students make when they play team games in person instead of online.

"It's a very different atmosphere," he explained. "Online, it feels like you're encountering a bunch of strangers because, well, you are."

In high school, Campanella managed his own esports team and learned that socializing with teammates not only forges social bonds but sparks competitive fire.

"You want to win more because you know these people," he said. "You feel like you're part of a team, and it will definitely show."

Champlain is already seeing a return on its investment in esports. It launched the varsity program in the spring semester of 2022 and joined the New England Collegiate Conference; the school's esports teams have placed second overall in Valorant and third in Rocket League. Champlain club teams have posted impressive results, as well, with the Overwatch team being crowned the 2022 NECC National Champions in its division.

"It's amazing to see the excitement and camaraderie that our esports club and varsity teams are bringing to the college," Champlain College president Alex Hernandez wrote in an email. He added that the program and the arena represent a natural evolution for the school.

"We now have one of the country's most comprehensive game experiences," Hernandez said, noting that the college has more than 150 courses available to students seeking a career in gaming.

Despite their growing popularity, esports haven't achieved the mainstream acceptance of more traditional sports, such as football, baseball or basketball. Before helming esports at Champlain, Konczal ran a similar program at the much larger Missouri Western State University. He recalled being amused by the skeptical reactions that the program drew from some alumni and parents — such as the ones who told him they wanted their child to be a quarterback rather than play something like Rocket League.

"It's funny — in Missouri, the fight was to legitimize kids playing esports," he said. "At Champlain, everyone gets the value of games, but it's the school having an athletic program that some folks have needed convincing of."

The program has put to rest any fears that esports would detract from students' studies. Konczal pointed out that the varsity team's average GPA in its first semester was a 3.53, and all teams have mandatory study labs. The school community has rallied behind the new athletic program, he said, with staff and students wearing the team's jerseys around campus.

Konczal believes it's only a matter of time before the National Collegiate Athletic Association creates its own esports league, as the National Junior College Athletic Association did in 2019.

"Right now, colleges and institutions are coming to terms with the fact that kids have been running leagues for years without their involvement," he said. After speaking to a number of athletic directors around the country, he believes the NCAA will inevitably step in to "get their piece of the esports pie."

If that's the case, few programs are ready for the big time like Champlain College. With a first-rate facility and a roster of talented student-athletes, the future of the esports program looks bright.

"When I graduated from Champlain seven years ago, there were two collegiate programs in the country," Konczal said. "Now, there's something like 270, and that's only going to keep getting bigger. More and more kids are going into esports, and we want Champlain to be a destination."

Learn more about Champlain College esports at esports.champlain.edu.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Game On | Champlain College's esports program launches a new era of school athletics"