Ladies and gentlemen, start your software engines.
Though the program is directed by the Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at Fresno State — and not by the Department of Athletics — it will join the Mountain West Conference along with the same 11 other member institutions that compete in traditional athletics in the conference. The West division includes Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, San Diego State, San Jose State and UNLV, and the Mountain division includes Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah State and Wyoming.
The esports program held a three-phase tryout session in November to select 22 players (10 for League of Legends and 12 for Overwatch).
“Esports is a global phenomenon that has taken hold of the Central Valley and Fresno State,” said Dr. Colin Stewart, associate dean of Student Involvement at Fresno State. “We know our students do better when they are more involved on campus and this is a unique way to engage students through not only gaming, but learning teamwork, leadership, interpersonal and intrapersonal development.”
The community is invited to meet the teams and experience gaming demonstrations at an unveiling event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 3 at the Bulldog Zone on the lower level of the University Student Union. University President Joseph I. Castro, other University officials and coaches will speak about the new esports program at 11 a.m. Free pizza will be available while supplies last, and a 50-percent off billiards discount will be offered.
Fresno State, the most recent conference member to launch an esports program, made its debut on Jan. 25 in a 2-0 loss to UNLV. The students compete in the Fresno State Esports Arena on the lower level of the University Student Union near the bowling alley. The space features 10 gaming PCs and racing-style gaming chairs for each competitor.
During the majority of the regular season, opposing teams are stationed at their own home sites, and compete electronically via an internet connection. During the postseason championship, matches will be played at a major esports arena. Fresno State fans can stream the competitions live through Fresno State’s esports Twitch channel or via the Mountain West Network. Fresno State will face each of its five divisional opponents twice within its 10-match schedule.
Esports is a billion-dollar industry and has been projected to surpass many major sports leagues in viewership by 2021. In 2018, a League of Legends world championship held in South Korea attracted about 100 million viewers, according to a story on cnbc.com, and, in April, more than 10,000 people attended the North American League of Legends Championship Series in St. Louis.
The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) formed in 2016 with just seven colleges and universities housing varsity esports programs. Today, more than 170 schools are members of NACE, a nonprofit membership association organized on behalf of member institutions. And there are numerous other schools with esports programs that are currently non-members (including Fresno State).
“We anticipate that esports will continue to grow and evolve at a rapid pace,” Stewart said. “More and more campuses will be investing in facilities, technology and infrastructure to connect with their communities. The number of spectators, fans and connections to esports has enormous potential. We are already seeing high schools that are developing extensive programs, including in Fresno Unified.”
In October, two volunteer coaches were selected to lead the two teams. Tommy Cherta Lee, a 27-year old Fresno native who works for Table Mountain Casino, will lead the League of Legends team. He has played the game since its creation in 2009, and he has coached and advised teams at various levels for four years. Joshua Tolbert, a 33-year-old who works in Technology Services at Fresno State, will coach the Overwatch team.
“Both coaches have years of experience coaching highly ranked teams and know the importance of balancing teamwork, gaming and academics,” Stewart said.
Future plans call for the creation of student scholarship support through ongoing fundraising efforts.
As an extension to the varsity esports program, Fresno State is also launching an intramural esports program for console-based gaming that is open to all students. An intramural gaming room has been added to the Student Recreation Center with six gaming stations, each outfitted with a Nintendo Switch and a PlayStation 4, and two of those stations include virtual reality headsets and an assortment of games. Biweekly tournaments will be hosted for various games, including Overwatch, Rocket League, FIFA 19, NBA 2K19, Fortnite, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Mario Kart. Fresno State students can register by downloading the IMLeagues app or by following @fresnostate_intramurals on social media.
“With the level of talent here in the Central Valley, this is an opportunity to showcase our students to the Mountain West and the globe,” Stewart said. “We are very excited to see our varsity program and our intramural program pave the way for the next generation of gamers.”
For more information, follow Fresno State esports on social media @fresnostatees or visit www.fresnostate.edu/esports.