Northwood University students level up with esports program

Historically, sports and games have been a form of entertainment and a way to connect and compete with others in an organized way. No matter the genre, playing games helps to build character skills of teamwork, endurance, focus, and skill. They can also offer a momentary escape and the opportunity to work toward accomplishing a goal. 

Esports, short for electronic sports, are video games played in a highly competitive and organized environment. (Photo credit/Amy Rokosz)The latest trend in sports is on the virtual level. Competitive gaming has become increasingly mainstream and college and professional esports are quickly gaining popularity and clout. 

What are esports?

Esports, short for electronic sports, are video games played in a highly competitive and organized environment. They’re played in both single-player or multiplayer team formats and range in genre. Esports are recognized as a varsity-level college sport throughout the US. The National Association of Collegiate eSports (NACE) is the nation's largest member association of college and university esports programs. Over 170 institutions now have varsity programming through NACE, and that number is quickly rising. 

Esports at Northwood University

Northwood University (NU) is one of 30 other colleges in Michigan that compete at the varsity level with dedicated facilities, coaching, and scholarships for their esports program. 

Northwood’s esports program began December 2018 with a goal of allowing gamers an opportunity to play competitively while earning a business degree from NU. 

Cody Elsen, Northwood's esports director and head coach, has been involved in competitive gaming since 2007 and has been with Northwood’s program since it began. Elsen coaches 79 players spread over 13 teams, each team competing in a different game. There’s a varsity, JV, and academy roster for each team/game. Games include Overwatch, League of Legends, Rocket League, Valorant, Call of Duty, Madden and FIFA.
 
“If you’re a big believer in sports and the benefits of athletics, then esports is no different. It’s the same principals: a group of people coming together, working together, using teamwork and social skills, creating friendships and relationships."
Millions of dollars are given out every year around the country for esports scholarships. Northwood has 56 players on scholarship and offers a degree specifically in esports, but the majority of the team members are pursuing accounting, finance, cyber security, or computer science degrees and using their passion for gaming as a tool toward achieving their degree. 

Team member Aden Frosch came to NU from Texas and is working toward his degree in management. He manages the Overwatch team and enjoys the opportunities that the esports program offers. 

"There’s a lot of math involved with determining strategy and what moves will gain the most value towards your goal." (Photo credit/Amy Rokosz)“One of the main benefits is the environment,” says Frosch. “The team is laidback and no one takes themselves too seriously, but when it comes to competition everyone comes together.” 

Aden learns from Elsen and appreciates the networking opportunities that arise within the esports arena. 

The pandemic hasn’t affected the esports program as much as the athletic sports programs. With the exception of some in-person competitions, Elsen explains, “It’s been business as usual for us because most of esports is virtual already.” 

Players are looking forward to returning to large in-person competitions. Northwood hosted the Michigan High School State Championship in 2019 with approximately 300 high school students competing. They intend to continue that in the future. 

NU’s teams have won several esports championships.Recognition of Northwood’s esports program in the Midland area is still developing as the program continues to grow, but Elsen explains, “More people know about us nationally than here in our own town.” Northwood is the most televised team in the Great Lakes Bay Region. They’ve been on national TV nine times in the last 12 months on ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPNU, NBC,  and NBC Sports.

“Gaming is an incredible form of entertainment these days,” says Elsen. “Not just playing but watching other people play and teams compete. In recent years, more people actually watched the League of Legends World Championship than the Superbowl.” Esports ranks extremely high on viewership in college sports. 

While NU offers an esports degree, many players are pursuing degrees in accounting, finance, cyber security, or computer sciences.NU’s esports teams are competing with a high level of success and accomplishment. They won first place at the College Rocket League Championship in Fall 2020 and the NACE National Championships in both Overwatch and the Clash Royale League. They also placed first in the Overwatch 2021 Cheez-It Grooves Invitational and were runner-ups in the Spring 2021 Collegiate Overwatch competition. 

Just like any other competitive sport, practice is crucial. Esports practice involves gaming sessions in the form of an unofficial match with another college team called a scrim. Teams then study film of that match for focused improvement. 

Northwoods esports gaming lab took a hard hit with the flooding in the spring of 2020. The lab is located in the lower level of Jordan Hall, and took on several feet of water. The technology and equipment involved in the gaming lab are highly valuable and stores priceless data for the program. The facility is in use but waiting for rebuilding efforts to be completed. Goals include expansion of the facility from the current 3,000 square feet to 13,000 square feet. 

Esports are an opportunity to learn and connect

The benefits of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are undeniable in education today. These principles have a clear overlap with esports. 

“Critical thinking is a huge component of gaming. There’s a lot of math involved with determining strategy and what moves will gain the most value towards your goal,” says Elsen. He also emphasizes the team-building opportunities that esports offer. 

“Many of the games involve a high degree of teamwork and leadership qualities. You cannot just have one amazing player and win; it's a team effort based on skill and strategy,” he says.

“Many of the games involve a high degree of teamwork and leadership qualities. You cannot just have one amazing player and win; it's a team effort based on skill and strategy.”Esports are on the rise on high school campuses as well. Both Dow High and Midland High offer esports as a club. Gaming was once considered taboo but is now mainstream, and Elsen urges support of esports at an early stage. 

“Educators and athletic departments of high schools that are not supportive of esports are doing a huge disservice,” says Elsen. “Clubs at that level are inclusive to all people and create opportunities for kids that might have never been involved in an organized activity before. They create crucial social development and other skills that can help them later on in life and truly change their path.” 

Elsen also recognizes that it’s been a challenge to get support for esports, but as the popularity of the program increases, the benefits become more apparent. 

“If you’re a big believer in sports and the benefits of athletics, then esports is no different. It’s the same principles: a group of people coming together, working together, using teamwork and social skills, creating friendships and relationships. Quite honestly, it’s an opportunity to improve the mental health of a lot of young people that could be struggling with not feeling like they’ve ever been involved in anything.”

To learn more about Northwood’s esports Program, visit www.northwood.edu/esports or esports.northwood.edu.

Read more articles by Amy Rokosz.

Amy Rokosz lives in Midland and works as a teacher for Meridian Public Schools. She enjoys spending time outdoors on one of Midland’s many walking, running, or hiking trails and spending quality time with family and friends.