"A strategic investment" - Nebraska schools going all in on esports

March 21, 2023, 6 a.m. ·

Members of Bellevue University's Esports Team Practice in the "Bruin-Bunker"
Members of Bellevue University's esports team practice in the "Bruin-Bunker" (Photo by William Padmore. Nebraska Public Media News)

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The first thing you notice when you enter the “Bruin Bunker” is the clicking of computer mice. Every so often the click, click, click - is broken up with a shout, laugh or most likely, a command. It is here that you'll find Bellevue University’s esports team hard at work.

The “bunker,” — a glorified computer room decked out in Bellevue’s purple and gold colors — is nestled into the university’s athletics building. It represents the university’s long-term investment into esports, or competitive video game playing.

The first time Bellevue University President Dr. Mary Hawkins heard the term “esports" was at a 2015 meeting of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics leadership in Kansas City. She remembers being intrigued by the concept. For one thing, she felt the sport would fit well with the university’s online focus.

Dr. Mary Hawkins of Bellevue University
Dr. Mary Hawkins, president of Bellevue University (Photo Courtesy of Bellevue University)

“And two, because I thought it opened up an opportunity for competition and a kind of athletics for a different breed of student.” Hawkins was far from alone in her interest. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics created an official collegiate esports oversight board in July 2016, called the National Association of Collegiate Esports.

Her interest was already piqued, but the investment from the NAIA was the last push Hawkins needed to go all in.

“We jumped onboard,” said Hawkins. Today, Bellevue’s esports team has 13 members.

More than 60 esports teams have formed in Nebraska over the last three years in high schools alone, with the total number approaching 80, according to the Nebraska Schools Esports Association, a nonprofit that organizes esports tournaments among Nebraska high schools. Among Nebraska’s colleges, a clear sign of interest has been the introduction of esports scholarships. According to a financial statement, Bellevue university intends to invest almost $340,000 in esports scholarships and close to $767,000 in the industry in general over the next four years.

But why? One of the reasons for the boom in collegiate esports could be money. According to some estimates, esports has the potential to be a $5 billion industry by 2030.

In Bellevue's case, even after paying for scholarships and a coach’s salary, the team makes a little over $100,000 a year, from members' tuition and housing fees.

Dr. Annette Vargas is Vice President for Student Access, Enrollment, and Performance at Hastings College, a private college in Hastings, Nebraska. She said Hasting’s esports team has 37 members, seven of whom are receiving esports scholarships.

“Not a full-full ride, but they could get about three-quarters of the way with the scholarships for our institution. So, that is a really big opportunity for students,” Vargas said.

A member of Concordia university's esports team practices
A member of Concordia university's esports team practices (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

Vargas, who is a gamer herself and whose husband works in the esports industry, said the creation of Hasting’s esports team in 2021 was due to two reasons: student demand and future enrollment.

“Colleges on the whole are looking for ways to recruit new students,” said Vargas. “And we know that there is ademographic cliff (coming) in 2025 of the number of high school students, right? So, we're all trying to find new ways to increase our enrollment.”

She also stated the university’s online culture as a major reason for the team's creation.

Vargas describes esports as a “strategic investment.” Michael Howie, Director of Marketing and Esports for the college, said that it’s still early but he is encouraged by the level of interest in the esports team from a diverse group of students. In an email he wrote continued engagement by the student body will serve as a marker of the program's success.

Bellevue Athletic Director Ed Lehotak stands in a blonde-plaid button-down shirt outside of the Bruin Bunkrt
Bellevue Athletic Director Ed Lehotak (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

At Bellevue University, athletic director Ed Lehotak cannot deny that esports is drawing interest. Lehotak, decidedly not a gamer, said he still isn't 100 percent sure how some of the games are played. and he has some misgivings about the lack of physicality involved. Still, he's impressed by what he's observed.

“I don't see anything but it getting bigger and bigger as time goes on,” Lehotak said.

He added, there’s another reason universities and colleges find esports appealing — the chance for victory against giants. Lehotak said because of the loose way in which esports tournaments are organized, smaller schools get matched up with — and potentially win against —much larger schools.

“We play Division Is all the time,” Lehotak said. “We beat the University of Texas. We've beaten the University of Virginia. So, we play the big boys, and we can hold our own.”

But there is one very large school in Nebraska that isn’t yet in the game. The University of Nebraska Lincoln.

The Dean of UNL's college of Journalism and Mass Communication, Dr. Shari Veil, is working with the university to spin off the college’s successful esports club into a varsity team, but the university’s sheer size means there are a lot of hoops to jump through.

“We have a bigger ship to turn than is the case for some smaller universities that are able to just start it up as a varsity sport because they don't have any other varsity sports that are lined up,” said Veil.

Veil is also planning an esports “curriculum” centered around the production of esports tournaments and began networking with local streamers and shout casters.

“I mean, this is a billion-dollar industry NOW, “said Veil. “I think there's a great opportunity to become a leader in this space.”

Members of Concordia University practice in their Esports arena
Concordia University's Esports "Arena"