EMU launches esports program to build community, highlight gaming industry success stories

Charles Spencer was excited to find other gamers at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) when he moved to Ypsilanti a few years ago after being part of a vibrant gaming culture in New York City. But he became frustrated when EMU's esports club shut down, and he felt the university wasn't as supportive of gaming and esports as it could be.


That's the main reason Spencer, a graduate assistant of esports with the university's Recreation and Intramural Sports department, was excited when EMU hired him to build and oversee the university's new esports program. Esports, a form of competitive gaming, has become increasingly popular and lucrative in recent years as professional players have drawn massive international audiences on streaming platforms. One analysis estimated that esports drew an audience of 443 million and generated over $1 billion in revenue last year.


"We're on a mission to bring gamers together and feel good about being a gamer at EMU," Spencer says.


Spencer says his first big event under the EMU esports banner was a collaboration with the Super Smash Bros. Club, the biggest gaming organization on campus. A tournament on Halloween attracted about 30 participants, plus a few dozen spectators, with prizes that included gift cards to the EMU bookstore.


"To be able to give those opportunities to students was great. I want to do more of that with more students," Spencer says.


In mid-May, EMU announced a partnership with international esports organization Gen.G, the third such program in the United States and the first and only one in Michigan. The comprehensive, multi-year program will have three main components: a Futures Program, a High School Invitational, and Women in Gaming Summer Camp.


The Futures Program is a 30-day social media campaign on Instagram and Twitter meant to highlight success stories of current students and alumni who are esports enthusiasts. Gen.G also hosts a related discussion on the chat platform Discord.


In June and July, the High School Invitational will kick off with Super Smash Bros. tournaments between high school players and EMU Super Smash Bros. Club players every two weeks. Competitions will be available to view on the livestreaming platform Twitch and live chat will be available on Discord. The esports program aims to reach out to gamers to help them feel connected to others who share their passion before they ever reach EMU's campus, says Calvin Phillips, associate vice president for student affairs at EMU.


Additionally, EMU will host a women in gaming program called "Gamer Girls Getting It Done," with three digital camps over the summer featuring topics including lessons from top women in the industry, tips from streamers and pros, and insights on producing esports events.


Phillips says gaming is about more than competition, and that it creates a "natural connection and community mindset."


Phillips says EMU faculty will also attempt to highlight careers in the gaming industry by showing how both esports and the regular "stick and ball" sports industry need employees who can meet the challenges of branding, marketing, announcing for games, and other related skills.


"Those are things we want students to realize are part of a possible career path," he says.


Spencer notes that Gen.G is also focusing on setting up internships for the program. He says students will have a chance to work with esports organizations to run their social media, do graphic design, organize and livestream tournaments, and gain other skills in the esports industry.


EMU was building its esports program well before the COVID-19 pandemic came to Michigan, but Phillips says the program kicks off at a good time.


"It's an unusual time in the history of the world, and with people having the stay-at-home order, they are thinking of what things there are they can do," he says. "With virtual gaming, they don't have to be in the same location to do that, so it lends itself to the environment we're working in right now."

Phillips says EMU's administration is excited to work with a partner like Gen.G and believes it's a "great opportunity."


"We know (gaming) is a growing community, and my mind went to how we could harness this natural interaction students are engaging in," Phillips says. "We know our students are gaming, so we were thinking about how we could help them feel a part of the institution and, at the same time, create opportunities for our students in this huge industry."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


Photos courtesy of EMU.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.