SUNY Cobleskill announced Wednesday, May 22, that esports will be offered as a varsity sport beginning with the 2020-21 academic year.
While some may ask how esports fits into the same department as the institution’s 20 other varsity sports, made up of more traditional sports like soccer and basketball, Fighting Tigers Athletic Director Marie Curran-Headley said that seeing the school’s esports athletes compete convinced her they are more similar to athletes in traditional sports than they are different.
“When I watched the students play, and I could sit and listen to the camaraderie and sportsmanship, then the leadership kicks in, the competitiveness, the strategy, they are exactly like every athlete I’ve ever met,” Curran-Headley told The Daily Star. “It’s a game on a computer rather than a ball on a foot or in a hand, but they are really like our other athletes in every other way.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic upsetting schedules in traditional sports this spring, esports is surging farther into the national sports landscape. In late April, more than a month after the NCAA canceled its spring championships, State University of New York Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson launched a three-week esports tournament to be contested by teams from across the entire SUNY network.
Teams from SUNY Oneonta, SUNY Delhi and SUNY Cobleskill competed in the event, and Curran-Headley said the competition gave her the chance to observe SUNY Cobleskill’s team. But esports has been growing outside of New York as well.
Business Insider reported that esports viewership is likely to exceed 500 million annually in 2020 or 2021, and revenue will likely surpass $1.8 billion by 2022. That’s a small figure compared to the roughly $15 billion in revenue generated by the NFL in 2018. But the rapid growth of investment in esports - Business Insider cited an increase of investment dollars in esports to be growing by more than 800% annually, per Deloitte - makes esports a rising phenomenon, even if it were not so young.
“Esports requires training, discipline, strategic thinking and teamwork, hallmarks of all our exceptional Fighting Tiger teams,” SUNY Cobleskill President Marion A. Terenzio said in a media release from the school. “As esports grows with breathtaking momentum, we are very excited to provide our students with an exhilarating opportunity to excel, and open doors to burgeoning professional opportunities.”
If fitting esports into the athletic department at SUNY Cobleskill took a little bit of learning, Curran-Headley said its place at the institution as a whole was natural.
“When I started, I thought, we are a college of technology, agriculture and technology, so how fitting would it be to have esports,” Curran-Headley said. “Then I started talking to some student-athletes and at the time, one of our men’s track and field runners was number one in the world at a game he was playing. That’s where it started, then it was just talking to the president about it, what her thoughts were and telling her what it was.”
Curran-Headley credited Chancellor Johnson and SUNY Canton Director of Athletics Randy Sieminski for pushing esports to greater relevance across SUNY campuses. Canton, which offered the first varsity esports team in the SUNY network, took on the chancellor’s challenge to put on the tournament earlier this spring.
That “spark of energy” with which Curran-Headley credited Johnson and Sieminski has already produced interest at the school. Cobleskill finished its accepted students week Friday, during which the announcement of a varsity team was made. Curran-Headley said she had already received nearly a dozen notifications of interest from current and prospective students, leading her to believe the program could carry an “above average” roster size.
That interest may be increased by a facility in the school’s Warner Hall, specifically outfitted with networking, computers and lighting designed to house the esports program. Curran-Headley said an announcement about a coach for the team is upcoming.
“We are tapping into a group of students who might not otherwise compete in a competitive environment,” Curran-Headley said. “Some athletes are gamers, but not all gamers are athletes, by the typical description.”