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VA University Offers Video Gaming Degree

Shenandoah University

Later this month, Richmond Raceway will host something new – its first E-Sports tournament.  In case you missed the memo, E-Sports involve people playing video games in what is, perhaps, the fastest growing form of entertainment in the world.  By 2020 one industry expert predicts E-Sports will be worth more than the NCAA. Now a Virginia univeristy is preparing one of the first degree-granting college programs in E-Sports. 

Overwatch is a video game with a complicated story.  It features a multi-cultural cast of super heroes who – guns blazing – battle evil robots.  Each character has a backstory – and a wardrobe of cool, colorful clothing.

Many universities now have varsity teams playing this and other video games, and this fall Shenandoah University will offer a major in e-sports management. Business professor Joey Gawrysiak is writing the curriculum.

“The president of the university over the summer was looking for new initiatives, new ideas – kind of take it to the next level," he recalls. "I half jokingly put in there e-sports as a major, and she looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t we do that?’  And I said, ‘Nobody does that,’ and she said, ‘Why not?’”

In 2010 E-Sports competitions offered $5.5 million in prize money.  Five years later the pot had grown to $45 million, creating an industry in need of people who know how to organize live and online tournaments. 

Credit Sandy Hausman / RADIO IQ
Student Kitana Jervis is passionate about video games and was named for a character in Mortal Combat.

“You’ve got broadcasters, you’ve got security, you’ve got all these personnel working that event, and you’ve got to understand what the set-up is like before that event actually happens, and how to market that event, so that’s how it’s similar to other events like you would see in sports or a concert,” Gawrysiak explains.

This major seems perfectly natural to grad student Kitana Jervis.

“Actually I was named after a video game character in the franchise Mortal Combat. E-sports is growing really big.  It’s going to be the next million dollar industry, and I was like, ‘Alright, cool.  I’m on board with that!”

And for others like Kyler Apgar and Morgan Keeler playing video games is a legitimate sport:

“It’s competitive.  You know there’s strategy to it," says Kyler Apgar.

"You don’t get to compete at this level without putting in hours of structured practice. Learning how to communicate and work with a team is what puts it up there with all of those other sports," Morgan Keller explains. 

Credit Shenandoah University
Joey Gawrysiak directs the e-sports program at Shenandoah University.

"You have to be fit, be eating well, have your mind right – all the typical stuff,” Apgar adds.  Which is why the major will also encompass science.

“Exercise physiology – how nutrition impacts performance, and how those impact performance as well as injury rehabilitation, because there are injuries that are happening in e-sports, and you have to understand how to get back to peak performance as quick as possible,”  Gawrysiak says.

And even for those who don’t plan to major in E-Sports, Josiah O’Sullivan and Kitana Jervis say it’s good preparation for many other fields.

“You know they say people who play video games make decisions 25% faster than those who don’t.”

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you’re playing video games.  They’re rotting your mind,’ but really there’s a lot of thought that goes into playing at a competitive level. It really does work your mind and can prepare you for pretty much any field that you want to go into.”

Alumna Renee Sogueco, who now works for Apple in Los Angeles, predicts graduates will have an easy time finding work.

“The tech industry in general, it just has so many positions, so they’ll definitely have an easy time of finding a job. I’m just so jealous.  I wish they had this program when I was in school.”

And for the university, Keeler adds, this sport requires a minimal investment.  Since most competition takes place online, you don’t need a fancy arena or a team bus.

“The League that we were in this spring, if you won you went to LA to play, but for all of the regular season you get to play on site, which is good for the bank, for the school, and it’s also more convenient for us.”   

Finally, it appears the people who pay tuition have not complained.  Grandparents might  sniff at the idea of majoring in E-Sports, but Jacob Dana says hisr parents are in.

“They’re proud of me for being on the team.  They think it’s cool, and it’s just like having a kid on the football team, but less chance of concussion.”

And Sean Kelly adds, “I play with my dad a couple of times a week.”

Shenandoah says it can accommodate about three dozen students in the fall, and already one senior has announced plans to stay an extra year on the Winchester campus to secure a minor in E-Sports.