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Wildcats Take Gaming Digital with AZ’s First Competitive Esports Program

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You may have noticed the sports world has taken a decided turn towards the digital in recent years. Competitive video gaming, better known by the catchy tag "esports," now rivals traditional sports in terms of fan popularity, participation headcounts, and revenue. The University of Arizona, known especially among other sports for its basketball team, knows this well.

Newzoo, a leading esports analytics firm, reports the global industry posted $1.1 billion in revenue in 2020 with year-on-year growth approaching 15 percent. Goldman Sachs estimates the value of esports could exceed $3 billion by the end of 2023.

Organized Esports Touch Down at UofA

In March, the digital gaming revolution officially arrived for Tucson students with the founding of an esports program called "Esports and Gaming at the University of Arizona." The club is the first of its kind at an Arizona state school.

Student interest in UofA’s esports program has been prolific. The organization claims a community of more than 1,700 gamers at the university. About 100 of those players comprise 14 separate tournament teams that compete in a variety of video games. UofA’s tournament teams hope to compete against other schools by the fall of 2021.

NCAA Slow to Uptake Esports

The esports program at UofA follows a national trend. Similar clubs exist at more than 175 colleges and universities around the US.

So far, organizing inter-school competitions has been a loose affair. The NCAA recognizes the impact of esports but has shown reluctance in taking on digital gaming in an official capacity. In April 2019, the college athletics oversight giant opted with a unanimous vote to not accept esports under its governance umbrella.

That decision has led some college athletic conferences to make their own calls regarding esports. The Peach Belt Conference was the first NCAA conference to sponsor esports events and has organized an annual championship series since the 2017-18 academic year.

UofA’s esports program was recently involved with Pac-U Gaming, an affiliation of esports clubs at Pac-12 schools working together to promote competitions.

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Students and Administration Come Together for Esports

The UofA esports program is led by president Liam Koennecker, an avid gamer who got his start by obsessively playing the Halo series.

Halo has achieved records by selling more than 65 million copies worldwide. It’s also one of the most popular games at competitive esports tournaments. In fact, Halo 5: Guardians is responsible for one of the biggest prizes in esports history at the Halo World Championship in 2016.

Koennecker was part of the core student group responsible for founding the esports club. Walter Ries, a UofA principal information technology manager, serves as the program’s interim director. Liesl Folks, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, played an instrumental role in the club’s formation by championing it among the school’s top brass.

The club even has the backing of UofA President Robert C. Robbins. "Arizona Esports reflects the university’s commitment to support student interest in areas of opportunity," Robbins said.

Build It and They Will Come

The UofA esports program is following its traditional Wildcat counterparts by securing an on-campus venue. Renovations are currently underway to transform the existing game room of the Student Union Memorial Center into an esports arena. Walter Ries indicated that there will be sponsorship opportunities for the arena as well as student scholarships for future club members.

Careers in Digital Gaming

Esports aren’t just fun and competitive–they can also prepare students for employment. Video games represent a significant opportunity in tech sector employment.

Ries is optimistic about the esports club making connections with existing UofA degree programs. He envisions partnerships with the School of Information’s game design and development program, the School of Journalism’s broadcast journalism degree, and the Eller College of Management’s sports management program.

According to CareerExplorer.com, there are currently 287,200 video game designers in the US. The job market for video game designers is on track to grow over nine percent between 2016 and 2026.

Get Social with UofA Esports Follow UofA Esports on Social Media

The esports program maintains social media accounts on Twitter and on Twitch, a popular livestreaming platform for gamers. Fans can follow at https://twitter.com/arizonaesports and https://www.twitch.tv/uaesports.

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