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Ready Player 1: Indiana State University offers esports for first time

Mar. 11—On a Friday evening in late February, Indiana State University students JT Lee and Luke Kanter battled each other in a video game of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate at Hulman Memorial Student Union.

It's a fighting game, and both students played intensely while also having fun.

Lee and Kanter are helping make history at ISU as members of the university's first esports team, part of the Missouri Valley Conference.

Esports, or electronic sports, involves competitive, organized video gaming.

The MVC has added an esports league to the conference's competitive offerings, and there is an eight-week regular season as well a championship event later this spring.

At ISU, competition takes place on Monday nights.

"It's really cool, especially since it's the first time ISU is doing this," said Dayne Waugh, another team member. "For as popular as gaming is, I'm surprised we haven't done this sooner."

On Feb. 19, the five-member ISU team began competition (although the other team forfeited). On Mondays through April 8, ISU will play Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for the Nintendo Switch against other MVC schools.

Esports on college campuses nationwide has grown significantly in response to student demand and with a goal of boosting enrollment.

According to an October article in the Christian Science Monitor, esports has been on campuses for about a decade "and is thriving along with the billion-dollar industry it helps feed. For students, esports offers a way to earn scholarships — to the tune of $16 million in 2022 — and build community via club and varsity competition. For the hundreds of schools that participate, it is a pipeline for filling classes."

Some colleges offer esports scholarships, although ISU does not in this inaugural season.

At ISU, games take place at the WZIS FM radio station and are live-streamed on Twitch at twitch.tv/wzisfm. Twitch is a video live-streaming service.

Esports competition also gives students interested in media the opportunity for hands-on experience to improve their broadcasting skills.

"It's great because students are getting experience broadcasting in areas other than sports," said Rich Green, WZIS FM general manager. "We have a lot of people interested in gaming, and it's just a natural fit for them to want to broadcast these things."

ISU esports team members are Kanter, Lee, Nevaeh Franklin, Waugh and Zach Gurchiek.

For Waugh, a senior information technology major who'd like to do technical writing in the future, esports is about meeting people and building community.

"You can meet some really cool people. That's probably my favorite part of it," he said.

Tournaments take place all over the world and playing against others "makes you better as a player," Waugh said.

For some, gaming is an escape, but it's also something that connects people, which is why Waugh believes it's so popular.

People can meet in person or electronically.

Waugh hopes ISU's esports team and program grows. "I'd like to see more games incorporated officially through ISU and for them to really promote it," he said.

Lee, a freshman from Wheatfield and computer science major, enjoys the competition.

Beyond technical know-how, it takes creativity, he said. To beat a competitor who is better, "You've got to pull out something they are not expecting to get ahead."

It also takes good reflexes and a general knowledge of the game. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has more than 70 characters.

"All have different interactions with each other and you need to know what each character does against the other character," Lee said.

The inaugural season benchmarks years of work to bring esports to Indiana State.

Previously, a committee was formed to discuss the idea and feasibility across several departments. The committee is transforming the Jones Hall Lounge as a permanent home for esports and casual gaming.

"Bringing esports to Indiana State University is something a few of us have dreamed about for a while, and seeing it become a reality is one of the coolest moments of our careers," said Ben Kappes, ISU's interim director of the office of student engagement, leadership and fraternity/sorority life.

Students approached ISU staff about offering it. "It's about what the students want," Kappes said. "I think the student experience is what we're trying to build for those who want to come to ISU."

The matches are fun to watch, he said. "Students really get into it. ... They like to play this game and they're good."

The team coach is Cam Parvin, an ISU staff member who graduated from Indiana State in 2021.

Coaching is something he's done in his spare time even before ISU created a team. "It's a lot of fun helping other players improve," Parvin said.

A lot of it just involves practicing, but "it's nice being able to point out things players could do better and watch them grow. That's a great feeling," he said.

Super Smash Bros. is a fighting game and improvement is a personal process, Parvin said. "It's not like team sports where it's about team cohesion."

A lot of it is understanding player behaviors and habits "and learning how to identify the state of the game and what you need to do in order to shift that in your favor," he said. "It's a lot of situational awareness."

ISU had a Smash Club before the Covid pandemic, which put an end to a lot of club activities. "But now we have this, and I'm very excited to be doing it," Parvin said.

He hopes that as more students become aware of and interested in the esports program, they'll be able to grow a bigger team.

Gaming in general has become "an incredibly popular past time," Parvin said. "It's fun and another way for students to express themselves."

Outside of college competition, esports can be quite lucrative. Parvin described one manufacturer of electronic game machines that organized a tournament with a $2 million prize pool. The top player was slated to earn $1 million.

"If you get good you can win money," Parvin said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com. Follow Sue on X at @TribStarSue.