Two years ago the pool tables, board games, and karaoke machine in the Zot Zone were hauled away, and the recreational space in the south building of the University of California–Irvine Student Center became the first dedicated esports arena at a public university. The reason was clear: UC–Irvine wanted to field the best esports team.
With professional players earning millions of dollars a year; colleges recognizing the intrinsic connection between gaming, technology, and the sciences; and a new competitive bent where students are getting paid tuition for playing, UC–Irvine is among a large crop of universities creating varsity esports teams that, in many cases, compete in the student union.
With the phenomenal growth of esports around the world, including on college campuses, an urgent need for new gaming spaces has arisen, and student unions are one of the locales being pegged to accommodate. Earlier this year, just one day after the University of Akron announced it would drop 80 degree-granting programs as a cost-cutting measure, it unveiled a plan to create the largest amount of space in the world—5,200 square feet—devoted to college esports. More than half of that space would be a 2,646-square-foot esports center on the first floor of the Jean Hower Taber Student Union.
UC–Irvine’s Esports Arena is 3,500 square feet and uses 80 custom PCs donated by a game systems company. The school also received $400,000 from a video game company that manages and livestreams tournaments, including webcasting UC–Irvine team competitions worldwide. The vision paid off: Last year they were ranked No. 1 by College Magazine. The school’s Association of Gamers has over 300 members, making it largest student organization. And, in August the varsity team was the collegiate League of Legends champion in the United States, earning a berth to compete in the world collegiate finals in China.
“Video games often get a bad rap, but research increasingly shows the positive impacts that games can have in science, medicine, and education,” said Rebecca Black, an associate professor of informatics at UC–Irvine. “UC–Irvine’s esports initiative can foster team building, effective communication, and critical thinking in nontraditional ways. These skills should serve students well for the rest of their lives.”
Schools are locating esports venues in other buildings, including athletic facilities and media schools, but the union as a gaming site continues to play a part in the larger schematic. While a new state-of-the-art esports center opened in Miami University’s King Library last year, Armstrong Student Center continues to operate a Twitch streaming room where students can schedule time to compete. Its esports club, the Miami Electronic Gaming Association, has nearly 500 members.
The Memorial Union at the University of Kansas and Andorfer Commons at Indiana Tech both rolled out esports centers last year, and University of California–Berkeley’s student affairs division has announced it will open an esports community center in partnership with a game developer and a professional esports organization later this year. Syracuse University has formed a committee to look at formation of an esports team and has identified Schine Student Center’s 1,500-seat Goldstein Auditorium as a probable venue.
During Labor Day weekend at University of Nevada–Reno, all of Joe Crowley Student Union’s ballrooms were taken over by gamers, according to union director Chuck Price. He loves the annual event because it brings in a diverse audience. The only caveats, he says, are to get campus IT services involved, make sure you have the available power to serve hundreds of personal computers, and have a good clean-up policy.
“We do at least one overnight competition each semester, and it brings in a whole new segment of the student body into the union,” Price said. “The first year we had it we didn’t break the internet, but we did break the electricity. After that we chatted with IT and handed that part of the event over to those who knew what they were doing.”