As esports continue to break into the mainstream, colleges are beginning to recognize that there is not only a desire, but a demand for the support and backing of collegiate competitors. We’ve seen a lot of 4-year universities present grandiose athletic programs in preparation for the possible race towards an NCAA-like level of competition, but schools like University of South Carolina, Sumter are showing that an attention to esports can help drive interest in higher education and foster community.
USC Sumter is a public university, a regional campus of University of South Carolina. They offer a limited serving of 4 year degrees, with their main focus being the two year programs that can serve as a launching point into other fields of study. Instead of building esports into their athletic program, they’ve built it into their student services department, but it still carries the same requirements that most varsity programs hold. Maintain your GPA, attend study halls, complete community service… keep to the standard and you could have a shot on their League of Legends, Overwatch, or Hearthstone teams. The best part of this approach is that anyone can join. You don’t have to be an elite competitor to be a part of the community.
“Within our program we don’t need to host tryouts. We have a place for all players of all levels. 1st teams, 2nd teams, etc. We even start players from no experience.” - Kristopher Weissman
Kristopher Weissman is the school’s Student Life Coordinator, and he leads the esports program. His main function within the program is to provide structure and logistics, but he keeps a lot of the responsibilities in the hands of the students as well, which keeps the entire operation student-focused. Clark “JokerGT” Mcdaniel has played for the school across multiple games and he believes this system has proven to be a positive for the program.
“I do not see any difference [with the program being under student services] as a student. I do not know how that would affect the recruiting side of things, that would be Kris' department, but I know that when we were at the NACE conference last year that schools did not seem to have a big concern in the difference as far as I could tell. I honestly think that our program is in a really good spot. I know that Kris [has been] doing a lot of recruiting for students to come join our program, even from students that are out of state. Also with each year our team has grown larger, so I hope that this will continue to happen in the future.”
NACE recently announced a partnership with NJCAA to help bring two-year colleges into fold and further legitimize collegiate esports. USC Sumter is moving towards becoming the first JCAA esports school, and it certainly seems warranted with how well the program appears to be running.
“We’re pretty much supported by everybody [at the school]. Everyone tunes into our matches on streams. A lot of faculty and staff don’t necessarily understand, but they watch.” - Weissman
It’s not just the school’s community that is being focused on within the program, but the local community as well. Sumter is hosting one of the more ambitious community events to be seen from an esports program this summer when they will bring in kids aged 11-14 for an “esports camp.”
“The summer camp we are running is all about showing our community what esports is all about and helping youth learn through esports. We are targeting local youth and showing them what it is like to be part of a varsity esports program. In the future, we plan to have camps throughout the year that focus on training and exposure for high school students to hopefully gear them up to attend our university - or at least be aware of the opportunity - while also being able to identify potential recruits.”
USC Sumter is using esports to help bond their campus, develop interest in their degree programs, and enrich their local community. They’ve chosen a system that is unique to their needs and, in doing so, have shown that a cookie-cutter approach to collegiate esports may not be the best approach. Weissman recalls the program’s origin in 2015, when the school’s Dean, Michael E. Sonntag, asked about esports:
“Dean said to me: ‘what do you think about this?’ I didn’t expect it to come up, but I took it and ran with it.”
And run with it they have.