Crowder eSports program sees growth

Seth Kinker

The industry of competitive gaming, otherwise known as electronic sports, or eSports, is growing rapidly at both the professional and collegiate levels. Crowder College, a community college in Neosho, is one such program that can attest to that with 50% growth since their initial season in 2019.

Collegiately, the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) was formed in 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri, and started with just seven colleges and universities having varsity eSports programs. There are now over 170 member schools with over 5,000 student-athletes and over $16 million distributed in eSports scholarships and aid.

At the professional level, according to a study done by Newzoo, a company that tracks video game and eSports analytics, global eSports revenues will grow to $1,084 million in 2021, which is a 14.5% increase from $947.1 million in 2021.

The Crowder college eSports Roughriders program was established on Oct. 28, 2019, with students beginning to compete by 2020.

Roughriders members Tyler Clement and Ethan Harp heard about the program once they started to attend Crowder, while Lakin House heard it was starting last spring before COVID-19 pushed it back to the fall.

“It was something to get into, the competitive scene,” said Clement, who competes in Call of Duty Cold War and Smash Brothers.

“My first thoughts were, ‘hey, I’m pretty good at this game,’” added House when he saw that Fortnite was one of the games they offered.

Jackson Lewis, the eSports Manager of the Roughriders, didn’t have an eSports background but had a passion for video games, organization and keeping things running. He was chosen from a pool of applicants and has held the title since the program’s inception.

“It’s a whole new world,” said Lewis about learning about the competitive side of gaming. “Going from single player video games for fun into this competitive space is a huge culture shock. The crowd is different, the play style is different. It’s almost like you’re playing completely different games, honestly.”

Lewis built a rapport and leaned upon the students in the program early on as he got inundated into the world of eSports because he knew they would know about the games they were playing.

“In a way, all games are the same, right? You have players, objectives, goals, it’s just the mechanics, and the way you go about it is different,” said Lewis. “Once I learned the rules, learning how to coach them was pretty straightforward.”

The Roughriders compete in the National Junior College Athletic Association Esports (NJCAAE) league founded in 2019 exclusively for two-year colleges and already has over 60-schools across the United States after two semesters of hosting competitions.

Their first season competing in the NJCAAE was in the spring of 2020 with Smash Brothers Ultimate, Overwatch, FIFA and Rocket League teams.

They chose those games by aligning with what the NJCAAE offers and began to offer more games as the NJCAAE began to offer more games in subsequent seasons.

“We had about 19-20 students that first season and now we’re up in that 29-30 range,” said Lewis on the program’s growth. “We gained about 10 (students) from spring to spring which was super exciting to me because even though enrollment was, unfortunately, going down, seeing interest in our program increase was exciting.”

Lewis said they now offer twice as many games as they did in year one and plan on potentially offering twice as many as they currently have next season.

The Roughriders currently have 28 teams across the four aforementioned games, Madden, Hearthstone, Rainbow Six Siege, Fortnite, Call of Duty and NBA 2k.

“It’s not like a regular sport where your school has one baseball team,” said Lewis. “Because the emphasis is on increasing student involvement and participation, our league doesn’t put a cap on how many students we can have play a single game. My eight Smash Brothers players compete in the same tournament with all the other schools’ players. Some schools might have two, some three or some might have 10. Right now, there’s no cap. If someone wants to participate and they’re eligible, we do the best we can.”

Practice schedules and competitions vary, with practices being decided upon by the players' availability with class, work and other obligations to fulfill at least one scheduled game per week.

“We’ll run some scrimmages, but most of us play throughout the week play anyway, so it’s kind of practice already,” said Harp. “You’re playing games, so you’re kind of always practicing.”

“I have two other people I play with,” said House. “We’ll usually find times after school or work to play together and most of the time if we’re free, on the weekend too. There’s tournaments all the time on the weekend, we’ll compete in those.”

The push for eSports at Crowder began in the fall of 2019 when it was brought to the board as an opportunity because the NAAJCE would begin offering it.

While their main location at the Neosho campus is a shared space, an open house was held on March 5 for their new room at the Advanced Training and Technology Center (ATTC) at the Joplin campus that allows another place for students to come and play, practice and compete at any time while making it the only extracurricular activity on that campus.

The room currently has four functioning setups, with the plan to add more in the future.

“It’ll make a huge impact. I have several students that go to class more in Joplin than Neosho,” said Lewis. “I’ve had students commuting from Carthage to Neosho, when you’re a student that’s a lot of driving and gas. It’s validating the people in Joplin see the potential of the program and that they’re willing to go all in and see what they can do with us.”

The idea for the dedicated space started last year when Lewis reached out to campus directors about the possibility of putting it at different campuses.

“I jumped on it and said let me know because he was starting to get Neosho up and going first, (because) we would be interested,” said Melissa Smith, the Director at the ATTC. “I am always looking out for new and great opportunities for our students. The opportunity to be able to have an organized sport on our campus was absolutely a no brainer to me.”

Beyond eSports, the ATTC offers Information Technology, advanced manufacturing, advanced welding and drafting classes.

“I wanted to jump on the opportunity because I felt our students here at this campus, with computer IT already being here, was a natural fit,” added Smith.

Recruitment for the fall is currently underway as Lewis partners with counselors and high school coaches to let them know of the Roughriders' events. On campus, they set up demonstrations to let students know about the program, while Lewis said he also schedules Zoom sessions with high school students to answer any questions they have about the program.

“As great as it is for Joplin and its students, overall, it’s great for Crowder,” said Smith. “It brings more awareness and excitement for students. Some people might say, ‘why choose Crowder?’ ‘Well, did you know they have an esports team, there's an opportunity for scholarships.’ More opportunities students in more places which is the best reason (to have a program).”