With professional, collegiate and high school spring sports seasons wiped or delayed due to coronavirus, esports are just about the only games playing as scheduled.
Joining a host of state programs including Missouri Valley, Central Methodist and Columbia College, the University of Central Missouri launched its first semester of competitive esports in fall, and hosted a Rocket League match as recently as last Friday.
UCM esports head coach Steven Shattuck, an assistant professor who sponsors the national mathematics honor society as well as the UCM Gaming Network club, said the program plans on expanding beyond three games and 27 scholarships next season.
In other words, the Mules are not playing around.
“I think it surprised them how seriously we were going to take it,” Shattuck said. “People take this very, very seriously. For those that follow the pro leagues, they knew what to expect. Some people thought they would just play three hours a day. For those kids, that’s what the (UCM Gaming Network) is for.”
Rocket League is essentially soccer with cars. Overwatch and League of Legends offer first-person and top-down battle arenas, respectively. Despite the different interfaces, Shattuck said he scouts for qualities similar to that of a football or basketball coach.
“Communication, how they position themselves,” Shattuck said. “We do the best we can at not just looking at rankings, but looking at all that stuff, communication and skill, together. We want a good team member.”
Shattuck credits Alice Greife, Dean of the College of Health Science and Technology, and Drew Griffin, Assistant Vice Provost for Admissions and Financial Aid, for helping to secure scholarship funding. Next semester, the plan is to distribute 40 scholarships worth $500 each to widen the breadth of games, team members and increase internal competition.
“There are eight scholarships for a six-player team,” Shattuck said of the Overwatch team. “It’s kind of like basketball; you rotate people in and out depending on what you need for that matchup.”
Shattuck added that the primary objective of expanding the UCM Gaming Network, a weekly meetup of about 40-50 gamers, into a competitive program is to increase recruitment to the STEM disciplines. And while the National Association of Collegiate Esports has not established academic eligibility standards, Shattuck said the program has enforced a minimum GPA of 3.0.
“It’s a university for a reason,” Shattuck said. “If they drop below that 3.0, they are in a mandatory study hall and miss two nights of practice a week per team. … They are all really careful because they don’t want to let their team down.”