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‘We wanted to jump on it early.’ Here’s why Northeastern made esports a varsity program

Nick Avery is Northeastern's associate director of club sports and esports.Northeastern University

Northeastern athletic director Jeff Konya is confident that the university’s varsity esports program can pioneer the growth of the game in the region.

Northeastern is the first Division 1 institution in New England to add esports at the varsity level, and will begin competition in the fall of 2020.

“We believe gaming is going to become very important, and we think there’s a lot of upside in the sport,” Konya said Friday. “Especially now, this kind of a platform is made for virtual or digital consumption. Being able to offer that to our community in terms of those who can play and who can take part, there is a lot of value for our community.”

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In its first year of varsity competition, Northeastern will have teams competing in Overwatch, League of Legends, Rocket League, and Hearthstone. The games played each year are fluid and can change depending on feedback from the players, Konya said.

At the club level, NU captured the Rocket League national championship in 2017, placed in the top four in the Collegiate Rocket League Eastern Division in 2018, and continued to be one of the top teams in the Northeast in 2019-20. Last spring, the Huskies tallied a second-place finish in Hearthstone at the National Varsity Division.

Nick Avery, Northeastern’s associate director of club sports and esports, was tasked by Konya with developing the university’s program. Avery expects around 27 players and a paid coach for each team. They hope to offer traditional scholarships in the future, but currently they have the ability to create scholarships through prize earnings.

“The shell shock early of understanding what it was, diving in, and looking at the industry, there was a curve early on,” said Avery, who wrestled collegiately at Indiana. “After I left the [NACE] conference, I was a full believer in this industry, that this thing is the wave of the future.”

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Between varsity (27), club (150), casual (600) members, along with the 1,400-plus students that reached out to join, Northeastern is sure there’s interest.

In terms of consumption, there is potential in traditional broadcast, Twitch, and eventually in-person opportunities to host esports events at Matthews Arena.

“In all of those spheres, there’s solutions in the esports platform,” Konya said, “and that platform can go worldwide, and it’s great we have those different access points for Northeastern.”

In 2018 when Konya was hired as AD, he started to introduce his vision for the department. Northeastern established its club program and a dedicated game room. The athletic department compiled research on participation and interest at the collegiate level.

“I think the student engagement and the student life and interest is a huge piece,” Avery said. “When you look at the percent of college students who are participating in this and want this on their campus, the involvement in it, is something that’s a driver for our students.”

Esports is not currently an NCAA sport. There are larger organizations, such as NACE, and smaller conferences in esports, and Northeastern hasn’t committed to one yet. Konya thinks the industry will have more high-end competitions where it may be varsity-only participation.

Going varsity was the first step. Choosing what leagues to be a part of is the next.

“With a new industry you want to be very intentional in doing research, you don’t want to make a decision too quick,” Konya said. “For us, it was being through enough in our evaluation. In intuition it was the right thing to do, but we wanted to get the data before we pulled the trigger.”

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Other prominent Division 1 institutions with esports programs include Ohio State, Oklahoma, Wichita State, Missouri, Robert Morris, and Boise State.

“It’s just starting to attract varsity status in the industry,” Konya said. “I think this is an eventual thing, and I think we wanted to jump on it early so we could best position and shape the industry."