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Joshua Knutson, head coach of esports for the University of Jamestown, watches over a recent training session in the Jimmies team's practice room. IMAGE: University of Jamestown

Joshua Knutson, University of Jamestown: Esports represents new frontier in college athletics

JAMESTOWN, N.D. – When we think of technology’s impact in sports, familiar tools quickly come to mind: instant replay, wireless headsets for coaches, football’s virtual yellow first-down line and so on.

But technology is having an even larger impact on sports than most people realize. With the rise of esports in the past few years, technology is changing the very definition of what sport is and what athletes are.

The dictionary defines sport as “an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature.” Traditional athletics gave us this definition long before the first computer. But because of the new technology of the 21st century, the definition of sport also fits into the new world of esports and competitive gaming.

This new brand of athlete competes in activities that certainly require skill and are definitely competitive in nature, the main difference being the use of a keyboard and mouse as opposed to a basketball or bat and glove.

Professional video gaming has been around for roughly 20 years. There are a number of highly successful organizations and individuals who have turned their pastime of playing games into their professional careers.

They compete in million-dollar-prize tournaments, stream their gameplay for others to watch, have sponsorships and brand partners, sign endorsement deals and are considered celebrities to those who share their passion.

From the outside looking in, these professionals are just like their NFL or NBA counterparts, even though they compete in something that traditionally has not been viewed as a sport.

But colleges and universities around the country are starting to buy into the idea of the newest frontier in athletics. The national governing body for college esports, the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), has 98 varsity member institutions who are committed to the growth, development, and advancement of esports.

These schools have recognized that there are student athletes in high schools who may not fit the traditional stereotype of an athlete, but who have the talent and passion to compete at a very high level.

The schools are offering scholarships, paying coaches and building programs akin to their other athletic teams in an effort to normalize how esports is viewed by the public.

Competitive gaming has been misunderstood for a long time by those who have not experienced what actually goes on in that world. Take the athletes who are in my program at the University of Jamestown. A typical week for these esports athletes consists of high-level scrimmages against other schools such as Boise State University, Indiana Tech or Shawnee State which have their own varsity programs like UJ, two- to three-hour film review sessions that go into extreme detail regarding what happened in our games, daily practices where different strategies are tested, at least one academic study-hall session to make sure grades aren’t slipping, and often individual practicing outside of the structured time with the team.

If you didn’t know that a person following that schedule was training for esports, you’d assume that he or she must be a traditional athlete. It is much more than just a few students sitting in a dark room playing video games.

The most exciting thing about where technology has brought athletics, especially when talking about esports, is that we are engaging so many more students than ever before. Esports is giving students who might not have the physical skills to play high-level traditional sports a chance to compete for their school and share the pride of playing on a team even after high school.

The students develop lasting friendships with their teammates, learn new communication and critical thinking skills, and in some cases are given a chance to earn an education that they may not have had access to without the help of scholarships.

With more and more schools adopting esports programs, and with the rapid continuing advancements in technology even outside of gaming, the possibilities literally are endless. Those in higher ed who are lucky enough to be a part of this movement are seeing the dawn of a new tradition, because one thing’s for sure: gaming and our love of sports are not going anywhere.

Joshua Knutson

Head coach, Jimmie esports

University of Jamestown

Jamestown, N.D.