Esports Day at Alerus Center gets UND’s attention

Dakno Gaming generates buzz around gaming, esports with big names, big partnerships at “Esports Day”

Tyler Manske of Dakno Gaming (left) helps Yatiyaña “yeti” Schaper celebrate his first-place finish at Dakno Gaming Esports Day, sponsored by UND. Schaper is regarded as the best Super Smash Bros. player in Minnesota. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

The stage was set: two top-ranked players were going head-to-head in the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Grand Final at Dakno Gaming Esports Day.

The mainstage was brightly lit, the commentator’s desk was close to the action, and the tournament was broadcasting to hundreds of online viewers across major platforms such as Twitch.tv. Two massive displays flanking the raised stage provided the game’s view to a ballroom of spectators.

Minnesota’s number one player, Yatiyaña “yeti” Schaper, won two straight sets against veteran professional Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman to claim the tournament’s top prize.

And for UND, all of the above meant the university’s newest, freshest and boldest recruiting event was a great success.

Backing from the University of North Dakota and other regional partners, such as HB Sound & Light and Rock 30 Games, has changed what’s possible for North Dakota’s small-scale gaming communities, said Tyler Manske of Dakno Gaming.

Though the prizes at Esports Day weren’t in the six or seven figures seen at national or global competitions, UND’s partnership with Dakno Gaming ensured the success of a professional-scale esports event complete with trophies, prize pools and engaging vendors. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Esports?

Leading up to Saturday’s main event in the Alerus Center, Manske was having conversations all the time with a curious public: “What is esports?”

Most are surprised to find out that competitive video game-playing is a billion-dollar industry. Across a variety of platforms and titles, teams and individuals vie for not only bragging rights as the best in their respective games, but prize pools, sponsorships and the fandom that comes from being a top competitor.

Video games, themselves, are steadily becoming the entertainment medium of choice for an increasing percentage of Americans and people across the world. From phones to computers to home consoles, such as Xbox and PlayStation, video games are ubiquitous in popular culture. And as with professional sports, professional gaming also achieves massive viewership. For instance, Riot Games’ League of Legends World Championship had more concurrent viewers than the Super Bowl.

As an extension of local nonprofit Evolve Grand Forks, Dakno Gaming — run by Manske and a handful of volunteer community leaders — is meant to legitimize esports in a region where sparse population translates into sparse opportunities for competition.

For Nintendo’s popular fighting game, Super Smash Bros., the nearest major tournament would be an eight-hour drive to Wisconsin, Manske said. As a gamer himself and while watching gameplay streamed online, he realized he didn’t know of any local tournaments or communities around specific games.

“Six months of the year, we’re all playing games,” said Manske of North Dakota’s harsh winter weather. “I thought we needed to have a tournament and get the community together.”

Working with Grand Cities Games to organize small-scale tournaments, typically called “weeklies” or “monthlies” for their frequency, he had people coming to Grand Forks from Fargo, Minot and even Manitoba just to play Smash. Most of the time, there wasn’t even a prize pool.

“They’re just that passionate about the game,” Manske said.

This got the attention of Collin T. Hanson, executive director of Evolve Grand Forks, which led to pulling together the group now known as Dakno Gaming. Together, they saw the potential for a larger tournament. At Evolve’s 701 Coworking space in downtown Grand Forks, they packed the house for their first event. Manske could see the excitement around it, and knew they had to go big or go home to keep growing the regional community.

Manske, after seeing the success of small tournaments with little to no prize pools, knew that with some support, it would be possible to host a successful tournament in a place such as the Alerus Center. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Next big thing

“UND is synonymous with great sports,” Manske said. “I’m not originally from here, but I quickly learned that this is a hockey town. But UND also has great football, volleyball, soccer and so on.”

Having UND join an increasing number of colleges and universities around the nation (including University of Jamestown) taking on esports as part of their extramural programming would be significant for the scene, Manske said.

When the Dakno group approached UND about potentially sponsoring an Alerus Center-sized tournament, they found more enthusiasm than they anticipated.

“It’s the first time I actually saw individuals from every major unit on campus interested in some aspect,” Provost Tom DiLorenzo told UND Today. Soon enough, UND was the lead sponsor for the event. UND Aerospace and UND’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS) had booths set up at Esports Day, on the other side of the ballroom from the mainstage, where attendees could try simulators, fly drones and learn more about UND’s offerings.

Since the University’s successful grassroots effort to host the 2019 National Collegiate Drone Racing Championship in April, administrators have been examining ways to engage students and young people more “virtually.”

At Esports Day, young people coming into the main ballroom got to see and experience the gaming-adjacent displays produced by UND Aerospace and RIAS. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Whereas previous higher education recruiting efforts (such as a science fair or traditional athletics) could extend through academia, supporting esports, gaming communities and competitive UAS activities could be the next big thing to draw tech-savvy students to UND.

“When Dakno came to us with this idea for an event, we thought it was great,” said Cindy Juntunen, dean of the College of Education & Human Development, echoing Provost DiLorenzo. “It really maps onto what we were thinking about in terms of esports and connecting that to drone racing. It seemed like a natural blend of interests around technology and gaming culture.”

Juntunen said with around 40 percent of Americans identifying as gamers, it’s clear that the negative association with gaming is a narrow perspective that doesn’t match today’s world. She’s now leading a committee formed by the provost to gather all that’s happening around campus in the virtual space and figure out how to galvanize it in the students’ interest.

UND’s Wellness Center will soon be home to the first dedicated esports facility on campus. While students have created an intramural presence for gaming and esports at UND, administrators are seeking ways to galvanize gaming and virtual activities on a campus-wide scale.

Gaming as part of One UND

An important piece that’s already developing on campus is a dedicated esports facility at the Wellness Center. Graduate student Olivia Stenstad has been working closely with Wellness Center staff to develop a space comprising a dozen gaming computers, as well as amenities suitable for hosting various clubs and competitions.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” said Stenstad, who is president of UND’s League of Legends club. “The goal is to promote both gaming and healthy living, which is a reason it’s in the Wellness Center.

“I’m hoping that UND will eventually make gaming a bigger thing, like offering scholarships to students and supporting tournaments.”

“There’s already an intramural presence on campus, with students doing this internally,” Juntunen continued. “What we’re trying to do is explore how to branch that perhaps extramurally, as well as what academic program areas could be enhanced by this.”

This eventually could mean establishing an official esports program on campus, or creating academic programs specific to gaming or similar tech-centric areas. Juntunen said gearing toward gaming could impact computer science, art, graphic design, social development and an expanding list of academic areas.

With all of these ideas coming together, DiLorenzo said “serendipitous” was a word that came to mind.

“I think we can be a leader in this space because, even though it isn’t fully organized yet, we have the parts that others don’t have yet,” the provost said. “Gaming, esports and virtual activity is the future, and we want to make it part of the ‘whole’ at UND.”

More information:

As the University pulls people together in the campus-wide conversation around gaming, esports and competitive UAS activity, those interested in contributing may reach out to Cindy Juntunen or Sandra Moritz, department chair of education, health & behavior studies.