Calling all gamers
North Carolina wants to become a hub for competitive multiplayer video gaming events — also known as esports. As such, the latest state budget includes millions of dollars to attract esports events. Some colleges in the state also want to get in on the action with custom facilities, esports teams and new degree programs. Can NC become a go-to destination for gamers? This is the N&O’s special report.
Colleges across North Carolina are pushing to get into the esports business through the courses they offer, the clubs they sponsor and the facilities they are constructing.
And now the state is investing taxpayer dollars into two schools to help boost their esports offerings.
N.C. State University and UNC Greensboro received millions in one-time money in the recently passed state budget to build esports facilities on campus and, in N.C. State’s case, to dispatch a mobile truck across the state.
“Esports is a dynamic and exciting growth market that UNCG is uniquely positioned to drive,” said Debbie Storrs, provost and executive vice chancellor at UNCG, in a statement to The News & Observer.
“It’s very much like a ‘start-up’ company in a very diverse academic enterprise — leveraging the strengths of our faculty with expertise in business, computer science, arts, and the social sciences, among others, to develop exciting new curricular pathways.”
Esports is the generic term for multiplayer competitive video gaming and includes a wide array of games. Esports is expected to generate $1.8 billion in revenue globally in 2022, according to Newzoo, which tracks esports analytics.
The state is already invested in the field. Raleigh hosted a major Halo Championship Series event in December, Cary’s Epic Games makes the popular “Fortnite” franchise and the state budget includes a fund with incentives for more events to come to North Carolina.
In the fall, UNCG is launching an esports degree program through its business school and hospitality and tourism management program. The school began to offer a non-degree certificate in 2021. The program will focus on the business and event management side of the industry.
“It’s a business first, right?” said William Brown, an associate dean at UNCG’s Bryan School of Business and Economics. “So all the aspects of business — accounting, finance, marketing, strategy, all of those things come into play. Part of our degree is the students get all of those courses just like any other business major and then we apply them to the esports business.”
UNCG received $2.4 million in the state budget for “operation, equipment, technology, marketing, and programming costs associated with the creation of an esports facility on campus.” The school already had plans to open an arena on campus this spring, financed by Chartwells Higher Education, which does a lot of catering on campus. Students in the program will have an opportunity to put on events in the arena, once opened.
“It’s event management with a twist,” said Erick Byrd, a UNCG business professor and the director of the business school’s Center for Industry Research and Engagement.
Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican, introduced House Bill 945 in May proposing to create the incentive fund for esports. It didn’t pass, but was included in the comprehensive state budget. Its introduction got the attention of Andrew Cagle, the university’s director of state and external affairs. Cagle talked to Saine about including UNCG in the larger package.
“We came knocking on the door,” Cagle said.
Saine, a UNC Charlotte graduate, had a meeting with the chancellor and was on board. “Wherever it ends up in the state, I’m agnostic — if people see the vision and understand what it can mean,” he said.
Esports facility and truck at NC State
N.C. State, which has had a computer game design degree for years, will receive $12 million over the current and next fiscal year for the construction of an esports facility on campus. The university will also receive $4 million for an esports truck, capable of bringing the technology to other parts of the state.
“We have all the pieces as a STEM education university and land grant with extension and outreach. I think it’s a great fit,” said Marc Hoit, the vice chancellor for information technology.
The facility is unlikely to be completed until at least next year. The mobile truck may take longer, but Hoit envisions it being deployed all over the state, perhaps allowing competition at remote sites in rural or other areas of the state and use as a production facility.
Hoit is leading a campus-wide committee to coordinate the school’s efforts in this area, including finding a facility that can be used to house the arena and considering what should be included in the mobile truck.
Hoit said the Triangle is uniquely situated to become a leader in the area given the number and quality of technology companies and universities, as well as the venues.
Like traditional sports venues, which vary in size and scale to accommodate everything from recreational games to massive collegiate or professional events, the needs for esports venues vary. Not everything requires a massive space like PNC Arena or the Raleigh Convention Center.
That’s where smaller facilities, like the ones being built at N.C. State and UNC Greensboro, can fit in.
“We can create weeklong events like the Bluegrass Festival where people come in and have smaller events that then eventually leverage and build up to a competition tournament or the big main events in the convention center or in some of the bigger stadiums or performing arts centers,” Hoit said. “That’s the vision.”
Wake Tech, Peace and UNC
The schools are not alone in their pursuit of esports.
Wake Tech has an esports team that participates in the National Junior College Athletic Association Esports (NJCAAE), which has competitions in 12 games, and an on-campus arena. In their first season, the Eagles won the spring national championship in “Overwatch” in May. They were the top seed in the fall playoffs after going 9-0 in the regular season but lost in the national semifinals.
UNC-Chapel Hill built the Carolina Gaming Arena in Craige Residence Hall. It has 36 PC stations and more than 10 gaming consoles, and students can reserve game time. The school also has teams that compete in the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE).
William Peace University, a private college in Raleigh, announced in February that it would begin offering an E-Sports and Gaming Administration degree in the fall of 2021, The N&O previously reported. The goal was to have 25 graduates within five years.
“It’s just so clear to me that this is going to be a growing field and a growing need,” Roger Christman, the chair of the school’s Art, Communications and Simulation and Game Design department, told The N&O in February. “Our job is to prepare our students for the careers of tomorrow.”
The Peace program includes courses in marketing, computer science, sports psychology and accounting.
“The 16-, 17-year-olds, they know esports. They understand it. We can attract them and we can bring them here. Through that four-year process, we can educate them and help them get out there and be a leader,” Christman said.