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Minnesota West considers bringing esports to college

Minnesota West Community and Technical College men’s athletic director Bob Purcell is intimately familiar with traditional sports -- the kind where athletes move on floors and grass, lift weights and run sprints to continually improve their physical endurance. Until recently, he’s not been so familiar with esports, the sports of the new age -- where competitors sit in chairs, watch computer monitors, and manipulate figures on screens with their fingers.

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Online gaming continues to be a national phenomenon, and Minnesota West Community and Technical College is exploring the possibility of bringing team esports to the school. (Doug Wolter/The Globe)
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WORTHINGTON -- Live long enough, and you’re liable to see things that at one time you never thought possible.

Minnesota West Community and Technical College men’s athletic director Bob Purcell is intimately familiar with traditional sports -- the kind where athletes move on floors and grass, lift weights and run sprints to continually improve their physical endurance. Until recently, he’s not been so familiar with esports, the sports of the new age -- where competitors sit in chairs, watch computer monitors, and manipulate figures on screens with their fingers.

But the year is 2020, and Purcell is now at the forefront of bringing team esports to the college next year or soon after that.

And you know what? He’s getting into it.

“I think it would be exciting. I’m kind of excited,” he said Thursday. “I’m not going to get overly excited until the right person tells me, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

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Already, Worthington High School has an esports gaming club called Worthington Esports Trojans. Students compete together in titles such as CSGO, Rocket League and Super Smash Bros., and one of the benefits is that members don’t have to be able to lift 200 pounds over their heads, complete the 100-meter dash under 12 seconds, or put a basketball into a hoop from 18 feet away.

Esports is exploding in the college ranks, and that includes schools close to home. Southwest Minnesota State University, which announced esports as its “19th varsity sport” early last fall, is planning to host its first-ever esports camp next Saturday and Sunday at its Marshall campus. Last summer at Minnesota State University in Mankato, esports enthusiasts joined the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) and a varsity team was developed along with a training facility. Attempts to expand the league are continuing.

Both men and women can compete together at esports, and it already inspires a hefty viewing audience. Some experts predict the sport will reach 300 million frequent viewers worldwide by 2023.

It’s also a big business, and some championship tournaments get more viewers than traditional popular sports. The 2019 League of Legends World Championship Grand Finals, in fact, attracted more than 100 million spectators -- more spectators than the 2020 Super Bowl attracted.

Much money can be made, too, by esports gamers. At the 2019 Dota 2 battle arena championships in Shanghai, winners received more than $3 million apiece.

At Minnesota West, Purcell is researching issues involved with installing esports at the two-year school. Among the issues he’s looking at are:

  • Gaming equipment. Updated systems must be in place, and all of it capable of fast internet speeds to allow many competitors to quickly react with other online competitors at a multitude of off-campus locations.

  • The space needed to house the equipment. A room with space for 12 stations will allow 12 esports gamers to compete together at the same time, but 12 might not be enough to meet the demand. Also, the esports room must be located in a secure area.

  • Cost. Bismarck State College in North Dakota had a start-up cost of $50,000 just last year.

  • Parameters. Questions need to be asked. Will it be a club sport in its first year? What’s the level of interest? How esports will be able to serve the regional area will also need to be considered. Effort must be made to assess esports interest at area high schools to judge the size of the effort now being studied at the Minnesota West level.

  • Expansion. How many new students will a new esports program at West bring to the school? And what will be the interest 5 to 10 years from now?

If the local college moves forward with esports, the program could conceivably begin next year.
“We think there is interest in the area. We don’t want to lose kids from our area to other schools if they can go here and play esports,” said Purcell. “I’m positive that if we figure out space and cost and equipment, it could be a good thing for us.”

Times are indeed a’changin. Traditional sports fans who consider esports nothing more than a silly diversion, a plaything for geeky teen-agers, are mistaken. Though no one’s likely to tear his ACL working a controller, the online games are treated in many ways very similar to football and basketball.

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Esports teams have coaches, or what others might call administrators. Minnesota West esports coaches will be paid by the college, and their job will be to coordinate events with other colleges, to ensure that the equipment is working properly, and to discuss strategy with esports team members.

The Minnesota West teams, in fact, will be real teams. Champions will be named at the end of a season. Just as there are Region 13 champions for basketball and football, there will be region champs in esports. The activity will be sanctioned by the NJCAA.

“Only it’s not a physical sport. It’s more like a chess game,” Purcell said.

What to read next
Monday high school sports roundup:
MORTON — The Worthington High School girls and boys golf teams took their talents to Dakota Ridge Golf Club in Morton on Monday for the Big South Conference meet, and junior Lilly Mahlberg led the way.
ST. PETER — Errors hurt the Worthington Trojans fast-pitch softball team on Monday as host St. Peter swept both ends of a doubleheader, 7-2 and 12-10.
Worthington High School seniors Octavio Flores and Teyel Lowe will play line positions next fall for the Minnesota West Bluejays