Northwood students participate in 17 varsity sports, a few dozen clubs and many student organizations. And beginning in fall 2019 they’ll add a competitive arena that falls somewhere in the middle: esports.
With uber popular online video games “Fortnite” and “League of Legends” as the playing field, a team of Northwood students will compete against other colleges and universities as part of the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), the governing body of college-level competitive gaming.
NACE is to gaming what the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is to football and basketball. And if you can avoid getting bogged down in defining the term “sports,” you can see the similarities.
“NACE establishes standardized rules, organizes competitions, and tracks results,” explained Andy Cripe, Northwood’s dean of Student Affairs.
In a typical NACE event, a team of five Northwood players sits together in a room inside Jordan Hall, each at his or her own computer, each controlling a character in an online “League of Legends” arena.
Meanwhile, five competitors from the opposing school do the same in a similar room on their campus. Each team has a coach, helping players coordinate their actions as they work together to achieve victory. A few spectators can watch the competition from inside the competitors’ rooms, but many more watch from their own homes via the internet.
To prepare for the fall launch of its competitive gaming program, Northwood is upgrading Jordan Hall’s computing infrastructure, has hired a coach to oversee the program, and is recruiting high school seniors who have high-level gaming skills.
“This is the highest level of collegiate esports competition,” Cripe said. “We look at it like a varsity sport. It’s going to be more like a varsity sport than a club or a student organization.”
Cody Elsen was hired in February to be Northwood’s first gaming coach. He’s a graduate of Dow High School in Midland, and has worked for several years in the marketing field, with connections to the business of competitive gaming.
“Online gaming is following the same model as professional sports,” Elsen said. “It’s going to be a $2-billion-a-year business in the next few years. There are people who become professional players as young as 13.”
Northwood is the fourth college in Michigan to join NACE, and sees great potential in being a forerunner in a field that has high visibility with future generations of students.
“This is a good fit with ‘The Northwood Idea.’ We believe in taking risks and being entrepreneurs,” Cripe said. “There is a bit of unknown in this. I have to admit that when the idea was presented to me, my first thought was the stereotype of a ‘gamer’ playing alone, isolated from the world. But esports is actually quite interactive. It requires many of the same skills as a sport, but without the physical dimension. And there are a lot of similarities between esports and business.”
As Northwood’s coach, Elsen will guide development of the program, with plans to add summer camps and non-collegiate competitions that will attract gamers from across Michigan and beyond.
“It’s going to be a great thing for the entire area,” Elsen said.