Varsity esports program moves from novelty to success

‘Bright future’ ahead for North Dakota Varsity Esports (NDVE) as it exceeds early expectations

A year after announcing its varsity esports program, UND supports multiple teams across multiple video game titles through North Dakota Varsity Esports. As many as 80 students have gotten involved either as players or as coaches and managers for competitive gaming squads. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

When sophomore Blake Nahin transferred to UND last year, it was because he saw the title of “commercial pilot” in his future. But “esports team manager”? That wasn’t something he had pictured for his college career.

Now, though, the commercial aviation major is working with multiple varsity squads to set them up for success – helping teams practice, signing up for competitions and helping shape the future of North Dakota Varsity Esports.

The University of North Dakota’s esports efforts are a year underway as of March, and students such as Nahin are getting in at the ground floor of a growing extracurricular enterprise.

“Everything is still so new that even my role as a team manager isn’t set out in stone,” said Nahin, who works (and plays) with the teams for the vehicular soccer game Rocket League and the tactical first-person shooter Valorant.

“But ultimately, being a manager is a way of being involved with the teams, even though my skill level isn’t as high in those games. … It’s been a really fun way to meet new people and make friends at UND.”

According to Matthew King, UND’s esports coordinator, as many as 80 students are either attached to varsity rosters or taking support positions similar to Nahin’s. And that uncertainty mentioned by Nahin is something King anticipated in getting North Dakota Varsity Esports (NDVE) off the ground.

“As I’m working with teams, captains and managers, I’ve been very careful to make sure that we’re in a position to take feedback and easily adjust,” King said. “Meanwhile, students have been knocking it out of the park in how they’ve taken on their roles, as freeform as things may seem right now.”

Varsity-level competition from home

King’s comments to UND Today spoke to the fact that the first year has represented NDVE finding its footing on a campus altogether disrupted by the coronavirus.

Despite an inability to attract and recruit students through in-person events and activities, the number of students getting involved has surpassed King’s expectations.

“The excitement from students has been great to see,” he remarked. “I’ve put out general guidelines for practice, and I’m holding weekly meetings with everyone. But it’s interesting to see how students taken those things upon themselves. They’re hungry and ready to learn in order to compete and represent UND in a positive light.”

Just as the pandemic has disrupted campuses around the country, it has affected the world of esports. Tournaments and match-ups that might have previously been hosted in an event space are now taking place solely online.

But Matthew Syrstad and his Rocket League squad are in their element playing from home.

“When UND first offered intramural gaming about a year ago, my roommates and I signed up for Rocket League because we were playing it a lot,” said Syrstad, a UND mechanical engineering senior from the Twin Cities area. “Only a few days later, we got a message saying that UND was launching a varsity program, so we started talking with Matthew King.”

Since those conversations, Syrstad has become captain of the Rocket League team, which is comprised of two three-person rosters and two substitute players. Both of the rosters have entered competitions throughout the school year, participating in a few different college leagues.

NDVE’s Rocket League teams have found many routes by which to compete against other schools, as the “soccer” game has a well-established competitive scene including multiple collegiate leagues. YouTube screenshot.

Leading up to the end of the academic year, the Rocket League team is the most prolific on NDVE. They’re playing matches every week against schools across the country.

“When we first started, we were entering competitions here and there, whatever we could find,” Syrstad said. “Now, we have an established program and some solid rosters.

“The collegiate scene is definitely different from playing with your friends; there’s a big variation in skill level. Some of the top teams can compete with near-professionals. Adjusting to that has been a good time for us, and we’ve seen a lot of growth and development as we’ve gone through the year.”

On Saturday, Syrstad and his home-grown squad will test their mettle in the West Conference of the Electronic Gaming Federation (EGF) playoffs. Various collegiate leagues handle post-seasons differently, but EGF – notably a Division 1 organizer – takes on a traditional sports playoff structure, Syrstad said.

People can follow the team through the NDVE Twitter account or check the UND Calendar to see when and how they can see upcoming matches, he added.

NDVE also now has a dedicated page on the UND website, which has information on the variety of ways students can become involved regardless of experience or skill level.

Over the course of the past year, King has been able to establish a practice facility for NDVE that has been used by the five-person Valorant team extensively. With the ability to physically distance, the team has been able to build skill and chemistry on campus as they practice. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

Pieces of the puzzle

Syrstad’s mention of fielding solid rosters is exactly what King is hoping to support in the coming months through recruiting and overall boosting the awareness of NDVE on campus.

Though Rocket League, Valorant and League of Legends are some of the most active teams right now, King listed multiple titles that have players and rosters that are holding practices, including Team Fight Tactics, Call of Duty, Overwatch, and Rainbow Six Siege. One piece of the puzzle is finding formal collegiate leagues to host them. In some cases, King has developed occasions to host other teams/colleges for competitions in lieu of lacking tournament opportunities.

“I’ll look for competitions, but I give students the freedom to find competitive opportunities for their rosters,” King said. “We have some varsity rosters that aren’t fully formed, such as for Overwatch and Rainbow Six, but they can use resources I’ve put forward and talk with me as we work to fill them out.”

NDVE has been able to bring in UND alumni to volunteer as coaches and organizers to work within the organization’s umbrella of games. King also shared that soon a part-time esports coach will be brought on to work closely with students as King focuses on NDVE’s overall development.

“That person is going to be able to be focused on a couple of key rosters and really help out on recruiting for the varsity program,” King said.

League of Legends has an established roster on NDVE, as shown above in a matchup with Park University, but the popular game is also the subject of a one-credit activity course offered at UND. King is working on bringing esports to the academic world, just as he’s establishing more varsity teams to represent the University. YouTube screenshot.

Skills in-game and in the classroom

Part of the esports coordinator’s ongoing work is introducing esports to UND in an academic context. King is looking at computer science, psychology, business and kinesiology as some areas for esports-related course content going into the future. Kinesiology has been leading the way in implementing an esports coaching minor, outside of the one-credit esports activity courses that King runs.

The activity courses have been popular, as “beginner” courses for Fortnite and League of Legends have close to 100 students enrolled, combined.

“That’s been great to see, too,” said King of the participation. “We had to keep bumping up the allotted number for the course as people signed up. With Fortnite, a lot of people know what that is, so it wasn’t surprising to see the amount of interest there. League is a little more complex, so most students in the course are really new to it or haven’t played before.”

But Jordan Johnson, a junior majoring in information systems, isn’t looking for an introduction to the game – seeing as he’s captain of UND’s League of Legends varsity squad. Instead, the Hazen, N.D., native is looking into esports coaching as a bonus to his academic career.

In taking on the leadership role – both in-game and organizationally – Johnson said that he’s been able to learn many things over the past year as captain, including how he can improve in such a position.

“I realized I’m not very good at the leadership side of things, in terms of being vocal and planning things out for us as a team,” Johnson said. “So taking on the minor will help my perspective on management, among other aspects of looking at things as a coach.”

Though the League of Legends team didn’t make it into its respective playoffs this year, Johnson sees a bright future for not just his team, but all groups connected through NDVE.

“This is all new and we’ve been having a lot of fun with it,” Johnson said. “I’m hopeful for the future because I know it’s only going to get better from here on out. I know we’re all looking forward to getting together and doing stuff in-person, even outside of gaming.”