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A new type of student sports team, one that will compete with computers, could be representing University of Wisconsin-Stout as early as fall 2020.

The university has approved a plan to begin developing an electronic sports — esports — team, which would play video games competitively against other esports college teams across the country through the internet.

UW-Stout is the first UW System school to announce an esports team and the second in Wisconsin. Marquette University in Milwaukee recently announced that it would have a team this fall.

“While the program is being developed and managed collaboratively by student life and academics, our athletic program will be consulted to ensure we are being consistent with our policies, expectations and student athlete engagement,” said Andrew Cleveland, assistant director of Student Life and Services.

Cleveland is overseeing the esports initiative with Dave Beck, director of the School of Art and Design.

The popularity of esports at universities and as a professional sport has taken off in the past few years. Revenue is expected to top $1 billion this year for the first time. Popular competitive games include Madden NFL, Call of Duty, Overwatch, League of Legends and Fortnight. Professional leagues are followed, streaming online via Twitch and at sold-out arena events, by millions of fans around the world. The National Basketball Association recently held a draft for its new professional esports basketball league.

UW-Stout plans to join NACE, the National Association of Collegiate Esports, which has about 125 members. NACE will hold the 2019 national championships in July in Pennsylvania.

“NACE is very excited to have the University of Wisconsin-Stout as a member of our association. They will be leading the way in Wisconsin, and we are looking forward to the talent they will be bringing to collegiate esports,” said Victoria Horsley, NACE marketing manager. “This is a respected university that will give players and esports members a place to belong in their community.”

The decision to form a team, which would be coed, is a based on several factors that seem to make esports a good fit for UW-Stout:

  • The university has nationally-ranked game design and development programs based in science and art, as well as majors in computer science and computer networking.
  • One of UW-Stout’s strengths is in technology and applied learning, as Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University.
  • The university already has a gaming culture with a student organization, PONG — Peoples’ Organization of Network Gaming — that typically draws hundreds of people to the Memorial Student Center for friendly competitions twice a semester. Also, a new student organization devoted to competitive gaming recently was approved.

Students from all majors could compete on the team, giving them another extracurricular opportunity.

“Current and prospective students have been asking about esports,” Cleveland said. “Exploring ways to engage these interests is exciting.”

‘Ahead of the game’

Hannah Bragelman, game design-computer science major, is on the university’s esports committee and is excited about the possibility, although as a senior she wishes she were just enrolling at UW-Stout so she could try out for the team in 2020.

“Right now there are big competitions on ESPN. This is going to be the next big thing,” said Bragelman, of St. Cloud, Minn., who is the Stout Student Association president. “It’s very smart and a really good step for UW-Stout. We’re ahead of the game.”

Bragelman has played competitively since she was in high school and has traveled to Anaheim, Calif., to see the Overwatch championship. “It’s like going to watch the World Series or Super Bowl,” she said.

Issues that the university will begin to iron out include determining where the team will play, what equipment will be needed and recruiting players and a coach, Cleveland said. The coach could be a faculty or staff member.

The team could have 30 or more members, who then might split up into several teams playing in different leagues.

The plan is to update a computer lab with new equipment for the team’s home base. The goal is to make the lab available for academic programs as well, similar to how athletics facilities are used by various campus groups, Beck said.

“Having this technology available for academic programs and instruction, in coexistence with its use as a practice and competition facility for the esports team, would be a new and unique approach to how universities need to continue to think outside the box in the 21st century higher education landscape,” Beck said. “We’re proud to have Stout be a leader in this area, as our game-focused combination of academics and extracurricular opportunities make Stout a perfect fit for esports.”

Representatives of several of the largest video game-makers have spoken recently at UW-Stout, including from Riot and Blizzard.

The esports team wouldn’t be as costly as a traditional team in part because it wouldn’t have to travel for competitions.

For more information about the initiative, go to the university’s esports webpage: www.uwstout.edu/stout-esports.

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