Ohio State is among a growing number of universities nationwide expanding esports programs to keep pace with the competitive video gaming industry. Online gaming is poised to surpass the billion-dollar mark this year. OSU has built an arena, is creating classes and will eventually offer a degree to teach students how to work in the field.

Just a few hundred yards from the stadium where storied football teams have played in celebrated games — just steps away from the field where a cherished marching band practices — a different kind of sport is burgeoning at Ohio State University.

It’s a community that’s been around for a while, in clubs and organizations and online.

Now they’ll come together with school support, with a dedicated space open to all, with coursework and programs, and opportunities to wear a Block O logo on a uniform as they represent their university.

Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter

The launch of esports at Ohio State is bringing a new meaning to "game day."

Announced last year, Ohio State’s esports program is moving forward this school year with the opening of its esports “arena” in Lincoln Tower. It’s just one part of a program that involves an esports curriculum, research and student life — all around competitive video gaming. 

“We already know there are avid and active gamers across campus we don't even see,” said Brandon Smith, esports director in Ohio State’s Office of Student Life. “So how do we engage in such a way that we can see what the population looks like? What are the things that are as important to them as other students?”

The days of video games as merely a hobby are long gone. Professional esports revenue totaled $875 million in 2018, according to a 2019 esports report from market research firm Newzoo. And it’s projected to surpass the billion-dollar mark this year. The global audience for esports was about 395 million people in 2018 and is expected to grow to nearly 454 million in 2019, Newzoo’s report said.

Spectators watch live professional matches and pre- and post-game analysis just like with traditional sports. In 2018, viewers watched nearly 1.3 million live hours of the top 25 video games on streaming services such as YouTube Gaming and Twitch.

Having university support helps legitimize and strengthen the gaming community at Ohio State, said some students involved in the Buckeye Gaming Collective, a student organization for gamers.

“There's always been a strong presence of the gaming community on campus,” said 19-year-old Allison Dang, a biomedical science major from Gahanna. “We've had some difficulty holding in-person events with actual gaming rather than watch parties because it's so hard to carry your huge (computer gaming) rig over. So having a game arena would be a really unique opportunity to have those events, bring people together, play games.”

Jimmy Bauer, a 21-year-old computer science major from Defiance, said, “I think the main thing is putting a face to the names you see online.”

“It’s the same as anything else, like finding lasting connections at Ohio State," he said.

The arena, opening early next month will hold an esports facility with more than 80 seats mixed among gaming computers, gaming consoles and virtual-reality systems. It also will feature a broadcast booth for students interested in streaming or covering esports events. The facility is open to all enrolled students.

The arena also will include spaces for Ohio State’s new esports teams, run through the Office of Student Life. Smith said the university expects to start three to four teams this school year — most likely for Overwatch, League of Legends, Rocket League and Hearthstone games, which are some of the more popular in collegiate esports.

Those teams will have commitments and expectations just like traditional college varsity sports, he said. 

“At the most competitive levels, they’ll go through the same things,” Smith said. “They’ll be recruited, they’ll have tryouts, they’ll have practice and a practice regimen that both allows them to develop as players and as a team.”

It’s also about the bigger picture, he said.

“It’s not just about me sitting down and running through scenarios and plays and how I’m going to win my next match as much as, ‘Am I physically fit? Am I stretched? Do I have good posture? Am I using good nutrition?’ That’s all part of it.”

Ohio State’s esports program also will include an undergraduate major in game studies and esports. The curriculum is still undergoing an approval process, with official enrollment for the major planned for fall 2020, said Becky Bradshaw, program manager in the Office of Business Advancement, who has been helping to launch the esports program. 

Ohio State worked with partners in the gaming industry to create the curriculum, which will have three specialization tracks: esports and game creation, esports management and the application of games in health and medicine.

The curriculum is designed to include some existing courses, Bradshaw said, so the hope is that interested students can take existing courses now to prepare for the official launch of the major next year.

“I’m excited for the classes that’ll be available for the program,” said Cali Gulan, 24, who’s majoring in digital communications and design and wants to get into game design. “Now there can be more game classes for the undergraduate level."

The student support and curriculum elevate esports at Ohio State beyond what some might view as only a hobby, said Gulan, of North Olmstead.

“We're not just a club now. I feel like we're more like athletes, even though we're not, you know, like the varsity athlete," she said. "... It can be seen as, ‘Oh, I can see a career in this,’ either playing or promoting it or just being surrounded in it.” 

An existing game studies minor already is at capacity with a wait-list, Bradshaw said.

"We know that this is something that’s in demand and that students are very interested in,” she said.

In the future, Ohio State plans scholarships both for academics and for students on its competitive gaming teams.

In 2018, Activate, a New York technology consulting firm, estimated that by 2021, esports will have more viewers than professional baseball, basketball and hockey leagues in the United States.

The growing interest and booming industry around esports make having research in the area even more important, said Dr. James Onate, faculty director of the Human Performance Collaborative in Ohio State’s Office of Research.

“As an industry, it's been growing so fast,” he said, likening the growth of esports to the National Football League, which, a century ago, was nowhere near as popular — or as researched — as it is today.  “If we look back a century ago, the NFL was not the most popular team sport out there."

Esports research at Ohio State will involve five colleges across the university looking at all aspects of esports, Onate said. “Brain, body and behavior.”

Researchers are interested in sleep and physical activity patterns, how people are affected by the amount of time they play each day or how long they’ve been playing through the years, he said.

Some people think about video games as having negative impacts, and researchers will explore that, Onate said.

But there also are a lot of questions to be answered about human performance — what can make a great gamer successful, and how to optimize and sustain performance, Onate said.

If you’re wondering who cares, ask the 16-year-old who won $3 million at the Fortnite World Cup last month.

 

jsmola@dispatch.com

@jennsmola