The sign on the door of Chris Haskell's fourth floor office reads "Please knock. I sleep in here." Inside, surrounded by computer monitors and stacks of paper, he's on the phone discussing BlizzCon, Twitch.tv and his busy travel schedule: Atlanta, Georgia, one week, Austin, Texas, the next. The husband, father and teacher in the Department of Educational Technology at Boise State University is also the director of a new university-sanctioned program on campus: varsity eSports.
"I had been researching eSports for about six months and [had] the realization that I had to do it, like a Frodo-and-the-ring moment," Haskell said. "It was eventually going to happen on our campus, so why not now? Why not me?"
Also known as competitive video gaming, eSports is as much about the spectators as players: people watch as teams compete in games like League of Legends, Hearthstone, Rocket League, Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch. Between 2015 and 2017, the eSports industry, already raking in $325 million, ballooned to $696 million, and by 2020 it is expected to reach more than $1 billion. A survey conducted by Limelight Networks even showed more 18- to 25-year-old males are watching eSports than traditional sports. After months of research, Haskell knew there was no time to waste when it came to investing in a Boise State eSports program.
"This world is ripe for someone to have an Alabama experience, where you can gain an unfair competitive advantage by putting in more energy, belief and resources," he said, referring to the domination of the Football Bowl Subdivision by the University of Alabama Crimson Tide.
Like other on-campus athletic programs, the eSports team at Boise State—one of 47 schools competing in the National Association of Collegiate eSports—practices, strategizes, competes against other schools and recruits players. More than 260 students have been attracted to both competitive and casual play. Also, like other programs, scholarships may soon be available to eSports players, although Haskell beat around the bush before talking about it.
"To quote Rusty from Ocean's Twelve, 'It's not in my nature to be mysterious, but I can't talk about it, and I can't talk about why,'" he said, before adding, "No, [scholarships] are coming."
The program promotes skills like broadcasting, journalism, analytics and more, but the absence of the kind of physicality present in football or basketball has led some to question its classification as a sport.
"ESPN calls it a sport, so it's a sport," said Haskell. "[ESPN has] a staff of about 60 writers dedicated to eSports. It's deeply strategic, skill-based like golf or bowling, and team-based. All of those are characteristics of a sport."
At Boise State, the eSports program dovetails into higher learning, but it also provides the experiences and values attributed to traditional sports. For senior Maggie Borland, a varsity eSports team captain, the program checks off all those boxes and more.
"It's really surreal and special to me because I've played video games my whole life," she said. "For once, I actually feel like I have a community that I connect with at Boise State and I feel like that's the case for a lot of people here."
Having moved around her entire life, being involved with the eSports program has given her a sense of belonging she lacked for much of her childhood. In addition to being the top-ranked Overwatch player on the varsity team, Borland's responsibilities as a team captain include player representation, conflict management, strategy development and accountability—skills she believes will translate into life after college.
"I'm the voice of the team, so any kind of concerns toward certain players or strategies come to me," she said. "It's taught me that I need to be real with people, I can't just put on a front of professionalism."
With the eSports industry continuing to grow, College of
Educational Technology Innovation and Design Founding Dean Gordon Jones believes the program is just scratching the surface of its potential.
"This is global. This is happening around the world," he said. "For Boise to see its metropolitan flagship university get in early is only going to be another arrow in the quiver for this economy and this metropolitan area to further distinguish itself and create the distinction that can help Boise be unique and ahead of its class on the national landscape. If you're not excited now, I hope you're getting excited."