Integrating eSports at Ashland University

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Ashland University describes five best-practice IT recommendations to support the successful implementation of a college eSports program.

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Credit: OHishiapply / Shutterstock © 2018

Since Ashland University (AU) announced that it will be offering Fortnite (co-op survival online game developed by Epic Games) eSports scholarships, coach Josh Buchanan said, "We've been getting a tremendous amount of interest. Nearly every kid on campus wants to be a part of our team, along with over 1,000 outside applicants." While this interest fueled a powerful AU marketing initiative, the effort required teamwork and an understanding of technology to successfully implement the plan.

How often to you get to be at the beginning of a revolution in college sports? According to a variety of experts, eSports in 2017 generated over $700 million in revenue. Still, by the fall of 2017, there were only approximately 60 universities and colleges with an eSports varsity program.

During that time frame, a local rival Ohio university adopted eSports. Our leadership started asking, "Should we?" It was an opportunity not only to compete but also to potentially increase student enrollment through early collegiate eSports adoption. In addition to increased student enrollment, embracing eSports had the potential to bring tech-savvy students to AU and provide current students the opportunity to learn additional critical and analytical thinking skills.

Trying to move quickly in higher education is a bit like turning an aircraft carrier running at full speed: it takes a while. Connecting with another university eSports program and a leading organization like the National Association of Collegiate ESports (NACE) provided key technological information to guide our process.

From our experience in integrating eSports at Ashland University, here are five best-practice IT recommendations to support the successful implementation of a college eSports program:

  • Assemble an agile small team. During the search to find an eSports coach, we built a team around the enrollment director, provost, athletic director, and CIO. We shared key information and scheduled short direct meetings to pass along only the pertinent information eachperson would need to make decisions, to avoid wasting each person's time. This agile team allowed IT to access data to find the right technology and partners to meet our needs while also being cost-effective. You need decision makers to achieve optimum success.
  • Ensure effective communication within the team. It was important that we only pass along essential information and usable information; this way, we could provide and respond to our respective areas in terms and verbiage that was quickly understood and executable. It was important to get our marketing department involved as soon as possible in order to help shape messages for prospective students in words, video, and images. We want students who come to AU for eSports to stay for their education. (Technology is cool for some, but added "bling" brings in those on the edge of eSports and college admission.)
  • Find or hire an expert. Not having a coach or expert on the team at the start required AU to be open to new concepts and ideas. Many of the games being played today don't require extreme computing power. They need sufficient video graphics and processor power to handle a variety of games/tasks, enough RAM to handle the load, and effective cooling systems. It became evident to our IT crowd after talking with NACE and other institutions that screen refresh rates, mouse and keyboard response time, along with low network latency were also important. Technology requirements vary by the game being played online. We soon learned that more is not better. We opted to build our machines based on the requirements of today's games as well as those that may be popular in the near future (one to two years). This is, admittedly, a guessing game, but experts will help you make educated decisions.
  • Coach input is essential. IT can build a machine to meet every need under the sun. But the problem is that the cost could quickly exceed $10,000 per machine if left to IT. It would meet the needs; however, it would waste processing and video power for the most popular but lower-tech games played today in eSports (League of Legions and Overwatch). Once we had a coach, we had someone who knew and played League of Legions, Overwatch and Fortnite enough to understand minimum system requirements. His knowledge and experience allowed us to finally understand the games, inputs, and time and how the equipment contributes to team success. He was able to guide us to a solution for today but with an eye on next year's games. (IT had brought to the table network requirements for 25–30 people and the rationale that an "overkill" machine today will still meet gaming requirements in two to three years.)
  • Right-size the technology. Bigger and faster isn't always better. Budgets dictate operations, but from the IT perspective, understanding today's game requirements is essential to establishing the basics (low latency, speed, processor and video power) while still providing equipment that meets potential new gaming requirements. Additionally, we needed to understand usage patterns to help find the best solution. We could build a suitable solution for today's needs, but with limited manpower, unknown usage/abuse, and team size, it was better to invest in a solution with a warranty that could still be viable in two to three years.

According to AU's athletic director, Al King, one eSports coach described the landscape as "the Wild, Wild West," as administrators, coaches, and advisors examined how to get a program up and running. This much is certain: Interest continues to build, and more and more schools are making the commitment to begin a program.

Don't try to "keep up with the Joneses" unless you have deep pockets and are willing to constantly change your plan and toss money into equipment and services you might not need. As they say in the military, a plan is only good until first contact. Ashland University's eSports team goes live this fall with technology and equipment that meet today's needs but also provide the ability to grow but not be obsolete in three years. We've invested in secure technology that meets the budget and enables our team to compete at a high level. Was our effort successful? Only time will tell.

Donald Tharp is Chief Information Technology Officer at Ashland University.

© 2018 Donald Tharp. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.