UND leveling up its esports presence with Nexus lounge
Nexus Esports lounge grand opening represents significant step for UND’s foray into competitive gaming
TVs and projectors were sprawled throughout the UND Wellness Center’s ground floor on Thursday.
Staff were moving between the displays to keep everything on track, and the commotion had the fitness facility’s typical, athletically dressed foot traffic turning their heads.
It was the grand opening for the Nexus Esports lounge. And it showcased how the University of North Dakota is “leveling up” for some serious competition.
Esports, the conventional term for competitive gaming, now has an official home on campus.
Just inside the entrance to the Wellness Center, the Nexus Esports lounge features 12 gaming PCs with more than 15 titles installed, including some of the biggest games in esports.
The gaming setups are top-of-the-line and ready for gaming clubs and all Wellness Center members to experience, said Mike Wozniak, coordinator of campus recreation.
But on Thursday, the big draw was a Super Smash Bros. Ultimate tournament — the same title that supplied action on the mainstage of Dakno Gaming Esports Day in November, where UND was a leading sponsor.
Dozens of students showed up for the 5 p.m. tournament start time, which senior Kaleb Dschaak — rushing to make sure that enough Nintendo Switch systems were set up to accommodate the higher-than-expected numbers — said was a great problem to have.
Push to support esports
The Wellness Center’s webpage on esports provides context to the name of the University’s first facility built specifically for gaming and esports. The site also provides information about its initial intramural offerings for games such as Rainbow 6 Siege, Rocket League and League of Legends.
“Nexus is defined as, ‘a series of connections linking two or more things, a connected group or series, and the central and most important point or place,’” the site says. “We wanted the name to show just how much we wanted this space to bring people together and create a sense of community.”
The community around gaming is precisely what motivated students such as Dschaak to bring gaming to the attention of UND’s administration. For him, the opening of the Nexus Esports lounge represents a significant moment in a years-long push for UND-based esports.
“You can see from our event that there’s a huge drive for it,” said Dschaak, gesturing to the gamers gathering in the Wellness Center and poking their heads into the new space. “This is the first step in a big process.”
As described in November’s esports write-up, competitive gaming is taking root in universities and schools across the country. Even before UND sponsored the Dakno Gaming event and formed a campus-wide consortium around esports, the Wellness Center hosted small-scale, friendly competitions for sports games such as FIFA and Madden NFL.
“Just in doing that, we kept hearing more and more about how we should be supporting esports, and that there’s a big audience on campus,” said Wozniak.
The physical space now found at the Wellness Center was possible through collaboration with the Division of Student Affairs & Diversity, as well as active gaming clubs and student leadership.
The Nintendo Switch consoles used in Thursday’s tournament, for instance, were payed for in a bill passed by UND’s Student Senate which appropriated funding to support the Nexus Esports lounge with additional consoles, games and accessories for students to use. The Association of Residence Halls also donated money for prizes and healthy snacks for the event’s competitors.
New aspect of the UND experience
With regard to how the 12-computer setup will be used in the immediate future, Olivia Stenstad, president of UND’s League of Legends Club, was delighted by the fact that so far 11 teams have registered for UND’s intramural League of Legends series. Each team comprises a minimum of five players, and the Wellness Center was originally hoping for 40 participants.
League of Legends is a team-based, action-strategy game that’s a global leader in esports participation and viewership. It’s perhaps the most common title among school-based esports programs.
Stenstad, a graduate student, said she moved the club’s gathering place to the Wellness Center and that she’s impressed with how quickly and how well the Nexus came together.
“It’s so exciting to have so many teams signed up, and I hope this new space will help our club grow on campus,” Stenstad said.
Cindy Juntunen, dean of the College of Education & Human Development, has been at the head of UND’s aforementioned consortium around gaming. She said the Esports Nexus will support student participation in esports, provide a boon for emerging campus esports clubs and increase awareness among the rest of campus about the contribution esports can make to the UND experience.
“I think this will be appealing to a lot of students, and provide a new avenue for social engagement and extracurricular activity,” Juntunen said.
Wozniak said that the location in the Wellness Center will also promote healthy approaches to gaming, such as taking frequent breaks for physical wellbeing and participating in various activities hosted at the facility.
Heading the initiative
With the Nexus now online, the University has brought aboard a Campus Esports Coordinator. Matthew King, now only a week on the job, will serve as the University’s head of esports initiatives under the supervision of Juntunen. He’s looking forward to working with Wellness Center staff, who manage the Esports Nexus lounge with a focus on recreational and intramural esports.
The Texas native arrived at UND with experience at other schools building up esports programs, and was impressed by UND’s holistic approach when it came to gaming, as well as the community that already exists. King saw opportunities for not only providing opportunities for gamers, but creating an inclusive and diverse environment around esports.
“There’s an interest in creating curriculum and looking for academic and research opportunities, which really intrigued me,” King said. “Along with that, looking at the Grand Forks community, there’s a big push for esports happening at the high school level.”
All of it put together, including support from the highest levels of the University’s administration, drew him to UND.
“I feel like it could be the perfect storm,” he said.
Dschaak, proud to see all of the advocacy pay off in his final semester at UND, talked about what he meant by the “big process” of bringing esports into the fabric of campus.
He would love to see varsity programs — teams competing at the intercollegiate level — and scholarships for esports athletes grow at UND. There is enormous potential in appealing to prospective students, according to Dschaak.
“We have students reaching out and asking, ‘What comes next, what’s happening,’” he said. “They’re looking at UND, and I think gaming can really build community on this campus.”