Esports gaining traction on Alabama community college campuses

Shelton State, Jeff State among those leading the way

Shelton State Community College’s esports team reflects a new trend across the state’s college campuses and beyond. Photo by Cary Norton.

Football in the fall is a staple of college life, and Jefferson State Community College is no exception, where cheers erupt as a player scores the game-winning touchdown.

Moments later, that same player uses a Koopa Shell in an attempt to free teammates from a villain who has turned them into puppets.

Wait … what?

Welcome to the world of esports, the competitive computer games that are beginning to take an organized form on college campuses nationwide. In esports, a group of students come together to compete against teams from other colleges in video games ranging from Madden Football to the Super Smash Bros. — home to Koopa Shells and villainous puppet masters.

Such organized tournaments have existed for a number of years on the college club level. But recently, there has been a push — especially among junior and community colleges — to turn esports into an official part of the athletic landscape. The National Junior College Athletic Association Esports (NJCAAE) was founded in 2019 and already has more than 60 participating schools from throughout the United States.

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“We’ve been really excited about starting our esports program (in 2018),” says Mike Hobbs, vice president for student affairs at Jefferson State. “We treat them just like we treat any of our athletic teams. It’s a club sport right now, but there is some interest to possibly make it an official NJCAA sport.”

A pre-COVID-19 tournament in progress at Jefferson State Community College.

The events are similar to golf tournaments in the sense that players can compete both individually and as part of a team. Hobbs says before COVID-19 restrictions, it was not unusual for 30 to 40 people to show up just to watch Jeff State’s esports team during a competition.

“We wanted an activity that wouldn’t break the bank when it comes to facilities and travel,” Hobbs says. “The students jumped right on it. They love playing it and being part of a team.”

Several other colleges and universities throughout Alabama are embracing esports as well. The University of Alabama, Auburn University and UAB all have established esports club programs. The University of Montevallo began competing in esports in 2020 as part of the 14-team Peach Belt Conference. Also last year, Calhoun Community College opened a new esports gaming competition studio for its team.

“There was a big push for us to get esports started here,” Shelton State Community College Athletic Director Cara Crosslin says of the program that began last year. “It just provides another opportunity to reach all types of college students, including ones who may not be interested in music or athletics.”

Members of the Shelton State Esports team include, from left, Carson Gibbs, Clay Postle, Sebastian Mendoza and Samuel Cheek. Photo by Cary Norton.

Now, before you roll your eyes at the thought of competitive video gaming, consider these stats from the market research organization Newzoo:

Global esports generated $947 million in revenue in 2020 and were expected to top $1 billion in 2021, with projections that the revenue total will double within two more years.

Approximately $833 million of that revenue comes from media rights and sponsorship, with the rest being generated by live-event ticket sales and merchandise sales.

All these revenue numbers are increasing because the global live-streaming audience for esports events is growing, with nearly 730 million people watching others play.

“It’s an industry now,” Hobbs says. “Top gamers can earn up to $100,000 a year.”

Of course, just as with traditional athletics, most college esports players will not go on to lucrative professional careers as a gamer. But school officials say there are educational reasons for offering esports programs, since numerous jobs these days involve the use of high-tech equipment.

“Many of our courses have a digital or gaming component to them,” Hobbs says. “Most medical equipment uses a programming component. Surgeries are done using lasers and robots. The military, big manufacturing, architecture, civil engineering all use computers. So, it’s just a natural fit for us to use esports to grow those types of courses. This helps our students when they go out into the job market.”

Elena Hodgson, the faculty advisor for the Shelton State esports team, agrees. She points out that a high level of skill is needed in order to be a successful gamer.

“It requires major eye-hand coordination and memorization,” Hodgson says. “They have to understand about these different (video) characters and strategize about the best way to use them. They have to know their own capabilities, know their teammates’ capabilities, and be able to communicate. It’s amazing to watch the sheer knowledge they must have in order to know the best way to play the game.”

There also is the community factor that is so important to college life. The current generation of students grew up with computers and other technology all around them. So, it makes sense that they will respond positively to an activity such as esports.

“It’s just a new way of connecting people,” Hobbs says. “You have both male and female participants, and it’s one of the few sports that covers all four counties that Jefferson State serves. And it also has a great retention piece to it. There is a much higher retention rate among our esports players, because it makes you feel more like you’re truly part of the college.”

Cary Estes and Cary Norton are Birmingham-based freelance contributors to Business Alabama.

This article appeared in the February 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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