The Esports Collegiate Conference (ESC) – of which NIU is a founding member – is growing by leaps and bounds – adding new teams, new games and a new partnership with eFuse, an esports platform that will produce, stream and showcase ESC tournaments and events throughout the 2021-22 season. As it grows, the conference provides NIU student athletes with increased opportunities and exposure in a field with many career opportunities.
The Esports Collegiate Conference was founded in June of 2020, with 12 teams and three varsity sports. The league now has 14 member schools, after the addition of Northeastern and Northern Kentucky, and four varsity game titles – Rocket League, League of Legends, Overwatch and, the most recent addition to the schedule, Valorant.
NIU is currently competing in Valorant and Rocket League (the other games are in the off season), and the Valorant team stands in fourth place with a record of three and one, just behind the conference leaders. The NIU Rocket League team is currently four and four. “That puts them in seventh place in the conference, right in the center of the rankings,” said NIU Esports General Manager Conner Vagle. “However, they’ve gotten the toughest part of their season out of the way, so they’re excited about what the rest of the season holds.”
Vagle is excited about the growth of the ESC, particularly the new partnership with eFuse.
“eFuse plays a lot of different roles in collegiate esports,” according to Vagle. “It’s a social media platform for academic esports, and it serves as a recruiting panel. Student athletes in high school and even middle school can show off their skills in the game and connect with different universities.”
“On top of that, eFuse also has a portion of their website called eRena, which is their streaming and production side,” Vagle said. “As part of our relationship with eFuse, they’re able to host the ESC Overwatch, Rocket League and Valorant season in eRena, as well as provide additional help with streaming and production. This provides a lot of different opportunities to showcase our NIU student athletes and to help us reach out to younger students who might be interested in playing for NIU in the future.”
“We are very excited to welcome eFuse as a part of Esports Collegiate,” said ESC Executive Director Bob Gennarelli. “We believe this partnership opens up tremendous possibilities for the students of ESC both during and after their tenure in the league.”
Esports – competitive video gaming – is a growing industry valued at more than 1 billion dollars globally, with opportunities for high school, collegiate and professional play. The esports industry is also home to all the many careers that go along with any sporting league – from coaching and management to marketing, broadcasting and representation, as well as video game design.
While NIU has been growing its varsity esports program as part of the ESC, the university has also expanded its recreational esports club and its academic focus on esports. NIU now offers six dedicated undergraduate courses on the esports industry, and a 19-22 hour minor in esports industry professions, which has seen increased enrollment in the past two years.
NIU now also has close to 20 students in GG House, the Esports Special Interest Community. In this residential community, students live near the NIU Esports Arena in Neptune Residence Hall and participate in regular programming together, including communal dinners, field trips and an esports lecture series.
Vagle notes that the Esports Arena has also seen increased participation recently, and that NIU Esports events – including community tournaments and open houses – have been incredibly well attended.
“We’re really excited to see so much interest in esports here at NIU, and we’re happy that our student-athletes at the varsity level are getting increased visibility,” Vagle said.
The audience for NIU esports is also growing, with a record high of 800 members participating in the NIU Esports Discord community.
“Pre-pandemic we had about 220 members of our Discord, so with more than 800 members currently, we’ve seen some incredible growth over past few years,” Vagle said. “On Discord we have a little bit of everything. There are casual conversations about video games, there are people actually playing games together on Discord and people can see our club and varsity schedules. We have prospective students and alumni joining in the conversation, and it’s a great way for everyone to connect.”
Vagle noted that the NIU Discord community has been very active, especially over the last few months. “We’re seeing on average each week 75 to 100 communicators, which means someone who goes into at least three different areas of the Discord and either sends a message or sits in a voice channel for at least 15 minutes,” he said. “We’re also averaging about 22 new members a week over the last eight weeks, and about 76% of those new members will become a communicator within the first week that they’re on Discord.”
What does all this growth mean for NIU and for NIU students?
“The bottom line is that the NIU Esports community helps to enhance our students’ college experience,” said Jeannine East, senior project manager of the NIU Esports Initiative. “Students who join the NIU Esports Club or varsity teams come together with a community of other students who share their interests, which makes NIU a more exciting and welcoming place. The esports minor and esports lecture series help students grow this passion into a potential career path, easing the transition out of college and into the workforce and a meaningful career.”
Learn more about NIU Esports, including the varsity teams, the Esports Special Interest Community and the minor in esports industry professions on the NIU Esports website.