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NIU student explores esports careers through work, play and study

April 13, 2021

For the past four years, NIU senior Alex Kramer has witnessed the growth of collegiate esports firsthand as a player, a student worker and a community ambassador, and through lectures and academics. Esports – the field of organized, competitive video gaming – is a multimillion-dollar industry with the same opportunities for coaching, marketing, management, data analysis and other careers that apply in traditional sports, at the high school, collegiate and professional levels.

Alex Kramer

Kramer remembers arriving at NIU as a freshman, excited to play on the club Overwatch team. “It was a very small team,” he reminisces. “There weren’t even real tryouts. Everyone who wanted to be on the team made it, and we competed in small tournaments with schools we hadn’t really heard of before. Now, we’re excited to have a varsity team and be part of the new Esports Collegiate Conference, which includes the MAC schools as well as Northeastern University.”

As Kramer developed his gameplay and rapport with fellow team members, he also learned about the wide range of esports careers through the NIU Esports Career Lecture Series. By interacting with professionals in the industry, Kramer realized that the knowledge and skills he was developing in his B.S. in Operations Management and Information Systems (OMIS) degree, as well as his minors in marketing and business analytics, were applicable to a career in esports.

“Through our Esports Lecture Series, we talked with Vivian Nguyen, who is a business intelligence data manager for Team Liquid, one of the largest esports organizations in North America,” Kramer says. “It really opened my eyes to the fact that there are so many careers in this industry. Every speaker has brought a new perspective, and we’ve had a wide variety of speakers, from lawyers to marketing coordinators, business analysts, and next week we’re even talking to a physician who specializes in esports injuries.”

Kramer is especially intrigued to apply his knowledge of business analytics in an esports setting. “I love looking at statistics, so I gravitated towards that area of OMIS,” he says. “I’m hoping to provide a unique value of having a lot of knowledge about esports as well as statistical analysis, looking at key performance indicators to make suggestions for the future or diagnose what went well or didn’t go well in the past. In esports, specifically, a lot of what business analysts do is to create reports to send to potential sponsors to show that esports is growing and seeing a good return on investment.”

Kramer was so intrigued by the possible career paths in esports, in fact, that he reached out to NIU Esports General Manager Conner Vagle to see if he could do more work with NIU Esports. Kramer was already working as an attendant in the Esports Arena – troubleshooting tech issues and answering questions for the students who used the arena’s gaming PCs and consoles. As part of his student employment, he soon joined Vagle in attending recruitment events, planning tournaments and even developing and teaching an esports curriculum to teens in partnership with the NIU STEAM summer camps and the NIU Digital Convergence Lab. Kramer has also taken on social media promotion and community management for NIU Esports, running and promoting monthly online pickup games for current and prospective students, as well as alumni.

According to Kramer, esports is an important tool for community building and student recruitment, as the social interactions among current, past and prospective students at these pickup games attest. Kramer says he has focused his message on community when he’s spoken to prospective students and families at recruitment events.

“Back when we were able to have a table at in-person recruitment events, we sort of had to put on two faces,” Kramer says. “For the students who know what esports are, we told them about the games we play, what we do and where we meet. For the parents, we would explain what esports is.”

“I think it’s important for them to know that esports is not just a way to play competitive video games,” Kramer continues. “Especially at the collegiate level, it’s a way to build a community and meet new people. I know my transition from high school to college would have been a lot different – and probably a lot harder – had I not found the esports club right away, and had I not found so many people who shared my interests. I’m really glad that the club was there, and I’m glad to be able to contribute to NIU Esports and help to give other students that same great experience I had when I arrived at NIU.”

The experience of communicating about esports to different audiences is good preparation for Kramer’s future career path, where he’ll likely interact with both esports fans who are deeply immersed in the sport and potential sponsors who are not very familiar with it.

Kramer – who is beginning the NIU Master of Science in Sport Management program this coming fall – is looking at different esports career options, including social media manager, community manager and business analyst. “That’s why my job at NIU Esports has helped so much,” he says. “Because we’re such a small department at the moment, I’ve done many different jobs in the past few months alone. It’s really given me the opportunity to figure out which path I want to take.”

Kramer is excited to continue working for NIU Esports as a graduate assistant while he completes his master’s degree, deepening his knowledge of leadership, data analysis, marketing, fiscal management and ethics in sport through his academic courses and work.

Learn more about NIU Esports, including the NIU minor in Esports Industry Professions on the NIU Esports website.