UArizona Launches Esports Program, State's First Public University Team for Competitive Video Gaming

a person playing video games

Though the university already has an established community of esports enthusiasts and a student-run club, Arizona Esports puts university support behind an effort to help students learn the ins and outs of a growing multibillion-dollar industry.

The University of Arizona will have the state's first esports team for a public university, along with a program to immerse students in every facet of competitive multiplayer video gaming for potential careers in the multibillion-dollar industry.

Arizona Esports launched earlier this month. Its leaders expect competition against teams across the nation and other universities to begin sometime in the fall.

Competitive video-game play has surged in popularity in recent years. The industry now draws millions of online viewers through streaming platforms such as Twitch, where fans watch teams battle it out onscreen in games such as League of Legends, Rocket League or Overwatch.

Although in-person sporting events have been on hold, esports has proven particularly lucrative in a year when the pandemic turned everything virtual – and that was how the idea for the UArizona program came about, said Walter Ries, the program's interim director and a principal information technology manager for University Information Technology Services.

"A lot of the traditional sports programs were being canceled due to physical contact during the pandemic," Ries said. "In many sports, teams have to get on the same field, whereas esports are virtual, so they could still go on, even during COVID."

The Arizona Esports program will build on an existing community of more than 1,700 esports enthusiasts at the university. A campus club called Esports and Gaming at the University of Arizona has about 100 tournament players across 14 teams for different video games, said club president Liam Koenneker, who is also involved in helping establish the new program. The club is nationally recognized and competed in a national championship in Rocket League, an online video game popular in esports.

Ries worked with the student club leadership, faculty, staff and university senior leadership, including Liesl Folks, senior vice president of academic affairs and provost, to craft a formal proposal, which was presented in the fall.

"Arizona Esports reflects the university’s commitment to support student interest in areas of opportunity," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "Not only are esports part of an established and growing industry, like traditional sports esports provide avenues to build community, develop critical skills and gain valuable experiences these students will draw upon for the rest of their lives. I am excited to see this program get off the ground, and proud of the student leaders who have helped create it."

Ries and Koenneker said Arizona Esports, housed in the Dean of Students Office, puts university support behind an effort to help students learn the ins and outs of a growing multibillion-dollar industry. The program aims to provide an inclusive environment for students of all genders and backgrounds.

"Empower students to pursue esports, enhance their education and give them a place to belong – that's the goal," Koenneker said.

Because esports tournaments are large-scale events, often with thousands of spectators in addition to the hundreds of players, the industry has opportunities beyond just playing video games, Ries added. He envisions Arizona Esports partnering with several of the university academic degree programs, including the School of Information's Bachelor of Science in game design and development program, the School of Journalism's broadcast journalism degree program and the sports management program in the Eller College of Management.

"We see the program as being very comprehensive," Ries said. "It's not just a new sports team; it actually has very strong ties to the academics, and one of the things I want to see is a lot of student engagement."

There are plans to provide students with paid opportunities that provide relevant industry experience in event management, coaching and production, Ries added.

Unlike traditional sports, which are governed at the collegiate level by the NCAA, esports does not have a singular governing body, and game publishers often organize their own tournaments, Koenneker said. The Esports and Gaming club was involved in Pac-U Gaming, an effort by esports organizations at schools in the Pac-12 to organize esports events during the pandemic.

The existing game room in the Student Union Memorial Center will be converted the to become a new esports arena. The first phase of the renovation is expected to be completed next month, Ries said. The program is currently working on obtaining sponsorships for the arena as well as for student scholarships.

Information on player recruitment, event schedules and other details about the program will be finalized when a permanent director is hired, Ries said.

Looking to the future, Koenneker said he sees the program becoming a force with the most competitive teams in collegiate esports – and a draw for those who want to make a career in the world of esports and gaming, not just as professional players.

"Gamers make up a large portion, if not a majority, of our society today," he said. "Being able to facilitate that kind of culture and to provide a place for that to grow, turn into career aspirations, turn into scholarships, is really important."

For more information, visit the Arizona Esports website.

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