Inside a room on the campus of Becker College last week, administrators from academic institutions across New England scribbled notes and posed questions to panelists not about traditional education, but Super Smash Bros., Overwatch and League of Legends.
Behind the panelists, a massive flat-screen television depicted video game characters battling in a Pokemon arena. Computer systems and internet bandwidth dominated the conversation, not for studies, but related to computer gaming. Pamphlets at the entrance defined “esports” including its phonetic pronunciation and definition.
For those new to the gaming world, Becker defined it as a multiplayer video game played competitively for spectators, typically by professional gamers.
As the first school in the nation to offer an esports management degree, and the first in the state to offer varsity esports scholarships, few institutions boast a better resume to define the sport. With that few schools offered a better location last week for the New England Collegiate Conference (NECC) to showcase esports, which remain unknown in the mainstream and carry stigmas for those pursuing it.
“Parents, maybe around my age, they may think you’re frying your brain just playing video games all day,” Becker College President Nancy Crimmin said. “I had a friend call me in a panic the other day and say, ‘My 7-year-old just said he wanted to be a professional gamer.’ I said, ‘That’s fabulous. Do you know how much money he can make?’”
The NECC will begin hosting sanctioned esports competitions beginning in the 2020-2021 academic year. Experts expect esports to experience double-digit growth over the next 20 years. The industry is expected to generate $1.5 billion in 2020.
Becker College is included in that growth. One of Worcester’s oldest colleges renovated a school building at 80 William St. in Worcester to an esports center outfitted gaming equipment.
Two old-school arcade systems welcome visitors into the space. Around the corner on the first floor, students competed in a Smash Bros. tournament during the NECC showcase. The gaming goes beyond casual after-school competition. Upstairs, 22 state-of-the-art computers are housed in three rooms for varsity gamers to compete against other schools across the country.
During the showcase, Becker College squared off against New England College in an Overwatch competition. Each team wore matching uniforms as they sat in separate rooms, the glow from the monitors lighting up the players’ faces. A coach accompanied each team in their respective rooms.
The movement in this sport came from the players’ rapid-firing away on the keyboards, the team communication airing through a headset.
“Esports is just as team-oriented as basketball or baseball. Those things translate very well,” Becker College junior Vinnie Carrabino said. “Playing with my team, we go through the highs and the lows. We’re there playing until midnight, 1 o’clock in the morning, trying to figure out how do we win? I also played athletics in high school, I was doing the same exact thing. How do I beat this team? What can I do to do more?”
The varsity competition consists of players that were selected after a round of tryouts. Like other team sports in college athletics, programs recruit and offer scholarships. Teams practice and host workouts. Some gamers at the showcase compared the workload to a 40-hour workweek.
Competitions also exist for less demanding leagues like club sports. Both complement the academic programs on campus, which offer first-in-the-nation esports management degrees.
The esports degree can focus on an array of topics like video game design, marketing and financing, business development and event management.
Reese Dikmak, a sophomore from Marlborough, enrolled at Becker College with a background in business. As a lifetime gamer, esports intrigued him but he was still hesitant to dive in.
“At the end of the day, as I did have a background in business, I had no idea if this was going to flop in the next four years or only grow,” Dikmak said. “When I got involved in the esports program here, it fell right in line with all of the plans I wanted to go down. It has become more and more clear to me that it really is only a growing industry that I’m proud I’m going to be a part of.”
After about a decade since the creation of an interactive media program, which includes game design, the esports umbrella at Becker College, consists of more than 500 students.
“It’s hard to imagine what the next 20 years will look like,” General Manager of New Initiatives at Becker College and Executive Director at Massachusetts Digital Games Institute Tim Loew said. “But it’s clear that people expect this isn’t going anywhere. It’s sort of like rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s.”
Within Becker and the NECC, esports is looked at as The Beatles rather than a nameless one-hit-wonder. They envision a multibillion-dollar industry with countless opportunities for students on campus and after they graduate.
For those who compete in esports, they view themselves as the foundation of the department. As the programs continue to expand, each class leaves its fingerprints on the growth.
“One of my goals is, I’m going to graduate and I’m not going to be a part of this team anymore and I want to make sure I leave it in a stronger part than I found it,” Carraboino said. “And make sure they understand this is something very special. Hold on to it and grow it.”