UND Esports brings gaming to the classroom

UND’s venture into gaming looks toward academic and research opportunities alongside competition

UND archival image.

At first glance, the world of esports is sports – the battles happening on-screen between competitive players for prize pools and bragging rights.

People watch for the gameplay, the tournament bracket upsets and the eventual grand championship showdowns.

But Matt King, UND’s new campus esports coordinator, sees the arena as representing far more than flashing lights and virtual scores.

Operating within the UND College of Education & Human Development, King has hit the ground running in building UND Esports with academic outcomes in mind.

The recruitment efforts drawing the attention of interested students are focusing on more than just building teams for competition, though that is certainly a pillar of UND’s esports endeavors, King says.

Cindy Juntunen

King’s trying to develop as many components for learning as possible that will make up the fabric of a student’s experience within UND Esports.

Cindy Juntunen, dean of the College of Education & Human Development (CEHD), agreed. “We really want to help students see how their love for esports can also translate to a potential career path,” said Juntunen, who is also heading the University’s esports steering committee of staff, faculty and administrators.

This fall, the College will be the first at UND to establish a minor specifically geared towards esports, and more ideas for academic programming are in the works.

Balanced approach to gaming

“I’m excited about it,” said King, when asked about the emphasis on academics within UND’s esports program. “I tend to view this entire endeavor as an academic venture anyway.”

Matthew King

He sees participation in UND Esports as an experiential learning opportunity for students who are interested in careers in communication, broadcasting, management, graphic design, computer science and more. Esports competitions and tournaments can be where the rubber hits the road with classroom knowledge, he said.

At the CEHD, esports is entering the classroom for the first time through the College’s esports coaching minor. The kinesiology department will be offering three esports-specific courses in support of teaching students coaching skills that can readily transfer to the world of competitive gaming.

The hope is that as students enroll in the minor – enhancing the profile of the overall UND Esports group – other Colleges and departments may latch on and consider possible academic avenues.

The process of bringing King onboard as coordinator and leading the esports committee has taught Juntunen a great deal about the industry. And so far, the experience has been fascinating, she said.

“Traditionally, coaches evolve out of really good players,” Juntunen said. “Somebody might be a top player in Rocket League, for instance, and become a coach that way. What we want to focus on are the actual coaching skills that go into helping people form a team in an esports environment.

“The esports coaching minor will help people develop those skills, which they’ll then be able to merge with their knowledge of the game and provide more leadership for teams.”

Along with the minor, the College is going to offer one-credit activity courses around gaming that should drive further involvement and enthusiasm for UND Esports. Juntunen made clear that the expectation is to create a balanced experience for students – one that doesn’t take away from the academic environment – such as practice times that make sense in the context of students’ studies.

There is also interest in research connected to gaming and esports, said Juntunen, as there are faculty wanting to examine the relationships between gaming, physical activity and learning.

She said researchers may be asking, “How do we channel the energy that goes into esports and use it as a way to improve learning, as opposed to the stereotype that people would rather play than study? Players have to focus and pull apart important details, just like in studying for an exam. How can we better understand that process?”

Gathering momentum

Though circumstances have made it difficult to get face-to-face with recruiting efforts, King’s surveys and active approach to developing student positions and varsity club rosters have gathered a momentum all their own.

UND has already hosted a tournament for Rocket League (a vehicular soccer game), which took place on April 11, and more than 100 students have registered for the UND Esports Discord server, which is a popular voice and text chat service among gaming communities.

King and a handful of student volunteers connected with schools and teams virtually, hosted registration, constructed brackets and ran a tournament consisting of 32 teams, including some from UND and local high schools.

King said the success and reach of that competition paved the way for other titles in the future.

“We offered a fun time for a lot of schools and students that were looking for a tournament, as other events had been pushed back due to the need to move operations remote,” King said. “It went over really well, and we got to see a lot of interesting stats for our social media and livestream viewership.”

As for the Discord server, the intent is for that venue to serve as the gathering place for specific games’ clubs and their varsity teams; it will also be the program’s main source for internal and external communication. UND Esports can also be found on Twitter, Facebook and Twitch.

“As we get the minor underway this fall, and develop more academic opportunities for esports, I’m hoping we can show more of esports’ competitive side, too,” King said. “My goal is for us flesh it out and get UND Esports to a point where others start taking note and developing an active interest.”