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At New England College, Esports Is For Having Fun And Boosting Enrollment

Peter Biello/NHPR

Esports, or organized video game competitions, are growing in popularity at colleges and universities across the country. Two schools in New Hampshire have programs: Southern New Hampshire University and New England College. They are among the first 131 schools in the National Association of Collegiate eSports. For New England College in Henniker, N.H., the Esports program is seen as both another extracurricular activity for students, and a way for the school to try to attract more prospective students.

New England College opened its esports arena, a small room outfitted with gaming chairs and computers, in January, a $60,000 project for the school. Now, after tryouts, between 20 and 30 college students come each evening to play video games like Overwatch and Fortnite.

Trent Lyon, from just outside of Dallas, Texas, is the first among the students to receive a scholarship from the school to play Esports. He was recruited to the school by coach Tyrelle Appleton.

Lyon says the whole thing has been a big surprise to his parents.

“My parents were astounded that I got a scholarship to actually play video games in college because they thought I would just be playing video games on the side,” Lyon says.

At New England College, Lyon is on the Overwatch team. Overwatch is a team-based, first-person shooter video game. And while video games like this are often associated with the stereotype of the lazy slacker, Lyon doesn’t see it that way.

“When you play tournaments a lot of times it’s a lot like other sports with communication and just the practice that goes into it. You kind of have to know what goes on behind the scenes before you judge a team for playing video games,” Lyon says.

You kind of have to know what goes on behind the scenes before you judge a team for playing video games

His coach, Tyrelle Appleton, who played varsity basketball and soccer at College of St. Joseph in Vermont, says esports are a lot like other sports.

“It’s just as competitive, if not more competitive, than some sports,” Appleton says.

Appleton says he played video games competitively for years. But it wasn’t until two of his esports teammates died that he started taking the whole thing more seriously.

“Once they passed, my promise to them was: this gaming thing can blow up,” he says.

Shortly after, Appleton began competing in high-profile tournaments and even secured some sponsorship deals. In the past few years, he has watched esports grow, from a niche market to a spectacle that can fill massive arenas like Madison Square Garden, and he’s optimistic about the sport’s future. He even believes it might be in the Olympics one day.

Credit Peter Biello/NHPR
Coach Tyrelle Appleton leads practice in New England College's esports arena

In the meantime, Appleton designs his practices so his players can build the skills he says are necessary to excel at esports.

To build concentration skills, he plays sounds of a crying baby on the loudspeakers while the team plays online chess at their computers.

To get the team to communicate with one another while playing games like Overwatch, he tries to get them to talk into their headsets as much as possible. Because they’re navigating the same video game world together, Appleton says the more the team communicates, the better they do.

And, to get their blood pumping, he leads the team down to the gym. He instructs them through a workout routine of aerobic exercises. The players work out three times a week, once as a team. Appleton says working out helps the players focus more when they’re playing video games.

While the esports team at New England College only formed a few months ago, Appleton says the team has already participated in some scrimmages against other schools. The college’s president, Michele Perkins, says she sees value in being an early adopter of the sport. She says it’s an extracurricular activity that ties in well with the school’s academic programs, including game design.

Additionally, Perkins says, the school has received numerous inquiries -- several hundred -- from prospective students who are interested in the esports program.  

“We have thousands and thousands of applications, but we know for certain that these students have called us or inquired in some way to say I’ve heard about your esports program, I’d like to know more about your college,” Perkins says.  

Overall, Perkins says the $60,000 New England College spent on the esports arena and the gaming equipment was fairly minimal, because if just ten students decide to attend the college because of esports, it would be a significant return on investment.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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