Esports: What it is, how it works and why it's important
Ian Escalante has firsthand experience seeing how video games can bring people together.
A self-proclaimed sports nut from Miami, Escalante and his family used to mark the changing seasons not by the always-sunny weather but by the sport he was playing at any given time: football, baseball, swimming or soccer.
But a series of injuries over several years, including a particularly bad back injury in high school, ended any hopes Escalante had for a career as a competitor. He still loved sports, but he missed the camaraderie and shared goals he found on the field or in the pool. To fill the hole, he turned to video games.
In November, Escalante became the first permanent director of Arizona Esports, which was launched in March under interim director Walter Ries, a principal information technology manager for University Information Technology Services.
Escalante reports to Kendal Washington White, vice provost for campus life and dean of students. The new role puts Escalante in charge of:
- Recruiting and coaching teams for varsity-level competition
- Establishing scholarships for players
- Fostering a community where students feel they can get involved in esports
Escalante's role is also defined by what he doesn't oversee, which involves the casual side of esports:
- The new esports arena, in the basement of the Student Union Memorial Center
- The Arizona Esports and Gaming student organization recognized by the Associated Students of the University of Arizona
- Establishing academic programs related to the business of esports, and leading research related to or involving esports
Escalante said he hoped to help support these areas but is ultimately focused on building the program's varsity-level teams.
Escalante, who previously established and led an esports program at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, sat down with Lo Que Pasa to explain what the heck esports is, why universities are getting involved in it, and his vision for putting inclusivity at the center of Arizona Esports.
What is esports?
Esports, at its core, means competitive video games styled in a sports format. But it's not just about facing off against one another; it's really competitive video games in a structure where we can determine a winner. Not everything can be an esport. There certainly has to be a rule set that everyone has agreed upon, and games are designed to be played on an even playing field created by the game designers.
Are certain video games designed specifically to be played as esports?
Absolutely! Rocket League is a good example. That game, in its most basic form, is about getting a ball into a goal. From the moment you start playing until you turn it off, you'll say, "Yeah, this was a sports match." It's not designed to be enjoyed as a single-player game where you play against computer-generated opponents. You would play it that way only as practice to eventually play against other players. Most of the esports that we play are designed with that in mind.
Esports is a multibillion-dollar industry, which might surprise some readers. How did it get so huge so quickly?
It's really a behemoth. Esports is interesting in that it overlaps into many peoples' lives whether they know it or not, in many ways more than traditional sports. Just like traditional sports, people come to esports to watch a competition. But it also has ties to art because of the art that goes into designing the games, and it has ties to technology because what we're playing is a development of technology. There are so many different interests that are pulled into esports just to create it. I think that's what has driven its growth – how many different ways it appeals to so many people.
Esports is not a recognized activity under the NCAA, but many universities are establishing varsity-level teams that compete in a network of leagues. Why is it important for universities to find ways to get involved in esports?
I don't think it's important; I think it's absolutely critical that universities do this. We're seeing so many students with whom gaming resonates to their core. This is their community. It's how they express themselves personally, it's how they find social relationships and, for many of them, this is the community that they're most comfortable with that they can grow into. That's not to disparage the traditional collegiate athletics experience. It's just to say that there are students who are looking for a different one. I don't see esports as a competitor to collegiate athletics. I see it as a supplementation for us to be there for all students. It's a great way to facilitate inclusion and retention, and I think it's a great way to keep students involved in the campus and feeling like they have somewhere to belong. This is part of their life, and if we want to be part of their life, we need to reflect their interests.
Can you discuss your experience working in esports?
I wouldn't say I naturally fell into esports the way most people do. Growing up, I was a sports nut – I still am. Unfortunately, though, I got injured a lot. And when I got injured, I couldn't play, and that was really difficult. The way I was able to keep competing and stay in touch with my friends and keep a lot of those experiences with them was starting to play video games together. That's where my love for esports started.
In college, I studied sports management because it was the only thing I was interested in, but I was already thinking about esports as if it were another sport. It really took off when I was in my master's program at Florida State (University), when I got an opportunity to do a guided independent study into esports teams.
I used that experience to become an esports consultant, working with parks and recreation departments, esports teams and universities to teach them about what I had learned. But in my mind, I wanted to build a program and a community, have it set sail and take off. I was fortunate to be able to do that at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, and I really just applied all the things I had learned and had been advising clients about as a consultant, taking traditional sports principles and also merging it with new and exciting things that we can do in esports but not traditional sports.
Why did you choose to work at the University of Arizona?
I wanted to be at a big university that could really change the narrative of esports and be a leader in the space.
Along those lines, what are your priorities for Arizona Esports?
When we look at esports, it should be inclusive of everyone. Students identifying as male make up less than half of the student body but our esports teams are 99% male – and that's reflected across all collegiate teams. Really, the true reason for this has everything to do with the way those who identify as female are treated in the competitive space of esports and the lack of opportunities that they are given.
With that being said, we cannot fall into that. Our teams should be reflective of our school. So, what we're going to do, maybe despite all the naysayers, is have teams that, we hope, will represent all gender identities on this campus as best as we can do it. That's what we'll be aiming to do, and we will be committed to giving opportunities to women in this space and let them feel represented in this space, which has been toxically male-dominated for no reason.
Our esports community has many parts: The teams who compete in different games; the arena in the Student Union Memorial Center, which is open to all students; the Arizona Esports and Gaming student organization recognized by ASUA; and an effort to build an academic side of the program, teaching students how to have careers in the field. How do those pieces all work together, and which areas do you oversee?
I'm involved and interested in all of those areas, but my priority is varsity operations. So, while I work with the club and do my best to facilitate things for them, ultimately, we're focused on competing and teaching students how to be players and hosting events meant to generate interest and support in the community. For the arena, Arizona Esports is not in charge of the arena. We reserve time to use it the same as anybody else would.
In terms of incorporating academics into the program, I will definitely talk to any professors here, help develop classes and facilitate communication between what they're doing academically and what we're doing as a program.
What does Arizona Esports currently look like in terms of teams and recruitment?
We currently have teams for CS:GO (Counter-Strike: Global Offensive), Valorant, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Rocket League, League of Legends, Rainbow Six Siege and Overwatch for a grand total of seven teams. We have the capacity for anywhere between 50 and 60 players.
Scholarships for our players are a critically important goal of the program. I would say that's my most immediate priority because this only works if we're able to offer some sort of scholarship to encourage students to apply and stay. Because of how big esports has gotten, we have to offer scholarships to be competitive.
When varsity matches begin, where can spectators find the schedule and watch?
Our varsity matches will all be on Twitch. That's where we'll broadcast the majority of our matches provided there's no overlap where we're playing two matches at once, which does happen. In that case, we can only show one match at a time. And when it's safe to do so again, we'll also do all of our games and practices in person in the arena. So, if anyone wants to pop by during one of our practices to see what we do, meet some of our players, meet me, it's an open and welcoming operation.
Members of the campus community who wish to learn more about Arizona Esports and opportunities to partner on events, research and more are encouraged to reach out to Escalante at firstname.lastname@example.org.