Esports at ECU: Not Just Fun and Games

By: Sunnie Dawn Baker

Cody Soden has a passion for gaming, and he isn’t alone. Soden, the Director of Alumni Relations and ECU Tiger Esports Coach, started his journey into gaming when he was three years old. While that might seem young, it really isn’t that uncommon in today’s world. While three-year-olds might not be playing Call of Duty or Diablo IV, they are being exposed to the world of video games with educational and age-appropriate games. Games are even used in the classroom. It is becoming a way of life for a large portion of the population. People of all ages play video games and also watch other people play video games. Statista, an online statistics portal, notes that in between 2016 and 2020, gaming video content generated 9.3 billion dollars with 1.2 billion viewers. Gaming isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, it will most likely become even more entrenched in our society.

According to Soden, 66% of Americans play video games regularly. It is a way for people to relax and unwind, challenge themselves, and also socialize remotely with their friends. Because of the popularity of gaming and streaming, esports has become a big business but it has also become a way to engage students in the high school and collegiate realm. Inven Global, an international esports company, states more than 8,600 high schools in the United States offer esports. The National Association of Collegiate Esports boasts over 240 member schools, serving over 5,000 student athletes nationwide.

While esports might not have the same physicality as the more traditional sports, it takes tremendous skill while also honing the athletes’ abilities. Hand-eye coordination, quick reaction times, and the ability to communicate clearly and effectively with your team members are all necessary to achieve success in the world of gaming. Considering the benefits of gaming and the interest from students, Soden made it his mission to bring esports to East Central University.

ECU first established a gaming lab in 2021, however, an official collegiate team was never formed. When Soden came to work at ECU as Director of Alumni Relations in 2023, he saw an opportunity to bring ECU’s collegiate sports program into the 21st century. Soden says that one in five students inquire about esports or competitive gaming on their initial tour of ECU. When students would tour ECU they would see the fully built gaming lab with rows of gaming computers and led lights gleaming behind a glass curtain wall in the University Center Building. However, any interest would be met with disappointment, as there was no team formed to utilize the gaming lab. The addition of the esports team provides another tool for recruitment and retention of students at ECU.

This opportunity for students, though, also provides a way to bring in and support individuals in the fields of science and technology. While there are gamers in every field and demographic, they do tend towards the technical fields. Of the current ECU esports team, 90% are majoring in a STEM field and 60% are computer science majors. In this sense, the ECU Esports Team is a focus point for future technology talent in Ada and brings together students who could fill technology jobs in Oklahoma, a particularly critical group smaller communities, such as Ada, to attract and retain.

Throughout the course of the season, the esports team will compete in two different games: Overwatch and League of Legends. However, it is rare that someone will play both games. These athletes tend to specialize in a single game, becoming experts and working together as a well oiled machine. Like other sports, the Esports Team builds teamwork, discipline, and a the ability to thrive in a competitive environment.

One of the challenges for a program like this, though, is the technology needs. Each competitor needs to have top of the line hardware for their gaming. A slow mouse or a glitchy graphics card could mean the difference between a win or a loss. And as technology improves, so, too, must their equipment. These athletes train in the lab together, on the machines they will be using in their tournaments, to make sure that they are at the top of their game.

In addition to the benefit to the student athletes, the ECU Esports program can also provide events engagement for the community. They are planning on broadcasting their games via Twitch so that people can watch, enjoy, and support their local team. They also have the capability to show their games in Estep Auditorium in the ECU University Center which has the potential for some fun campus and community events. While many people watch gaming streamers from the comfort of their home, the ECU Esports Team broadcasting capabilities open new possibilities for watching, consuming, and engaging with content created by the team.

There are many different ways to build a community of innovation, and the development of a collegiate esports team is one of them. Not only will this bring more people into our university and community, but it will also give them a reason to make connections and stay once they realize the possibilities that Ada has available. Whether they work in one of the many technological fields that already exist in Ada, choose to start their own business, or work in one of the new tech startups, this town has a lot to offer.

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