Nebraska students capitalizing on esports boom

March 22, 2023, 6 a.m. ·

Bellevue University Student Plays League of Legends (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)
A member of Bellevue University's esports team plays League of Legends. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Kimball High School senior Keegan Eertmotd has been playing video games ever since he could hold a controller.

His passion runs so deep, that he played a leading role in the creation of Kimball Public Schools’ esports team, which officially debuted in Nov. 2022.

“Right now, we're kind of setting a cap at like 10 members,” said Eertmotd. “We're still trying to figure everything out, but as time goes on, we will expand.”

Next school year, his love for gaming will pay off when he receives $5,000 per semester to play for Morningside University’s esports team in Sioux City, Iowa. He remembers the moment he got the news, which came in the form of an official letter from the University.

“Oh, it was surreal,” Eertmotd said. “I immediately went to my aunt, and I was, like, ‘Hey Nay, you got to look at this! They're actually giving me money towards my tuition.’”

Eertmotd’s aunt, Renee Marshall, whom he has been living with over the past year, was even more surprised.

Kimbal High School Senior Keegan Eertmotd, embraces his aunt, Renee Marshall
Kimbal High School Senior Keegan Eertmotd and his aunt, Renee Marshall. (Courtesy of. Keegan Eertmotd)

“You know, this isn't money going into his pocket; this is money going toward his education,” said Marshall. “Anybody from my generation will be like, ‘This is stupid.’”

Eertmotd is one of thousands of students nationally taking advantage of colleges trying to lure talent to their esports teams.

In Nebraska, several colleges and universities offer esports scholarships, one of many benefits available from the explosion of competitive video game playing across the nation.

Bellevue University, a private university in Bellevue, Nebraska invests close to $85,000 a year on Esports scholarships, according to a financial report for the 2022-2023 school year. David Castillo-Ferrin is Bellevue’s head esports coach. He said when he first entered the role seven months ago, he found the university’s outreach to high schoolers lacking.

“I feel like we were targeting more college students or maybe transfer students, " said Catillo-Ferrin,” when we have a large pool of competitive players here in Nebraska.”

One of his main projects has been establishing a high school to college pipeline akin to the ones that exist for football.

“Actually, within the first two weeks that I was here, I emailed every single high school within our state that had an esports program, introduced myself, and gave our flier with all of our information,” said Castillo-Ferrin. He said soon, he will also be forwarding school scholarship information.

Bellevue University Head Esports Coach David Castillo-Ferrin Stands in the Bruin Bunker
Bruins Head Esports Coach David Castillo-Ferrin (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

High schools and middle schools are proving to be fertile ground for esports. Josh Hughes is a music teacher for Amherst Public Schools. He is also treasurer and co-founder of the Nebraska Schools Esports Association, which organizes esports tournaments among Nebraska high schools.

“Basically… we're like the NSAA of video games,” Hughes said, referring to the Nebraska Schools Activities Association - a statewide organization that oversees interscholastic competition between Nebraska’s high schools.

Originally, the NSEA was an unofficial coalition between three high schools, Amherst, Elm Creek and Broken Bow. By the time the NSEA became an official nonprofit in 2020, 13 teams were involved. Today there are close to 80, according to Hughes, with more on the way.

“It's a really exciting thing to be a part of,” said Hughs.

Aside from scholarship money, Hughes said esports' sharp growth in recent years can be partially explained by what it can offer young people who aren’t athletic enough or don’t have the desire to be on a traditional sports team.

“Leadership qualities, communication, dealing with frustration, rivalries,” said Hughs. “The thrill of victory… or how to deal with a loss.”

For some, it's their first time being on a team at all, Hughes said. “That was a big seller for a lot of people.”

Concordia University freshman, and esports scholarship recipient, Drake Brady can testify to the skills esports helps develop. A former football player, Brady said to be successful at either activity, you have to be patient, keep your ego in check and stay dedicated.

Nebraska Schools Esports Association Logo
Nebraska Schools Esports Association Logo (Courtesy of Josh Hughes)

“You're spending 20 minutes on the toilet, what are you doing instead of just scrolling through Facebook,” said Brady. “This pro player just streamed and he's playing this champion this way. Okay, how do I do that for me? What is he doing differently, because he's better.”

Just like with any other sport, esports can also provide camaraderie and a sense of community. Charles Ryan, a freshman at Bellevue University, is also on an esports scholarship worth around $8,000 per year. Ryan dropped out of college three years ago. He said the sense of community fostered by his teammates is helping him adjust to the university environment.

“I got kind of a support group right away,” said Ryan. “It just helps, right?”

A sense of camaraderie was a big factor in what got Kegan Eertmotd in Kimball into esports. As he prepares for his freshman college year, he hopes to see more people his age join — or create — an esports team at their school.

“I guarantee you, I'm not the best nor even close,” said Eertmotd. “So, I want it to also be known that the people that are thinking about doing it, just go for it.”

if it worked out for him, it could work out for others, he said.