An illustration of the future gaming room for students to come play with friends and club activities in Lincoln Tower. Credit: Courtesy of Davis Wince Architecture

Lori Baldwin and Becky Bradshaw had a problem.

The Ohio State Departments of Athletics and Business Advancement had noticed growing popularity of esports across the country and the university’s campus communities that were passionate and involved with video games. It was pushing Baldwin and Bradshaw, director and program manager of affinity and strategic relationships, respectively, to figure out a way to enhance and support esports on campus.

They began studying other universities with large esports programs, talking to esports industry leaders and gauging interest from professors and researchers on campus.

When their research was done, the duo came back and informed the administration that the esports industry was large and rapidly growing, but they shouldn’t settle for only professional and collegiate competition. This led Ohio State to develop an academic major, create competitive teams and recruit researchers at the university for a first-of-its-kind esports program in October.

“When you think about a major in game design and esports, well, what does that mean? Who is the end student for this?” Deborah Grzybowski, co-director of the new game studies and esports curriculum development, said. “What you are going to be assessed on, and what you are going to learn when you finish taking this course? Those are the things we have to write, and they have to be measurable.”

A team of 30 faculty members from five colleges — Arts and Sciences, Business, Education and Human Ecology, Medicine and Engineering — came together in May to answer these questions about the academic portion of the program.

They decided on core classes that all students in the major would take, along with three branching specializations: the making-it track, the managing-it track and the using-it track.

“The students, no matter what track they are on, need to create a portfolio of their work,” she said. “We are integrating into this program a lot of opportunities to create games and work together as teams.”

Brandon Smith, esports director and enterprise project lead, said Ohio State has been doing more to connect the classroom and co-curricular experiences, starting with the construction of a state-of-the-art arena in Lincoln Tower.

The arena at Lincoln will be filled with more than 80 seats accompanied with computer and virtual reality consoles that will be open not only to the esports team for practice, but also to the student body for open gaming. The arena will also include a broadcast booth for students interested in doing commentary for competitions.

With video games being a mostly solitary activity, even when playing with friends online, Smith said this is an opportunity to get more students involved.

“This is a chance for these students to interact in a space that is university-managed, and they can get a chance to physically see each other while they are gaming together,” Smith said. “This is a chance for us to see another set of students that we might not see outside of the classroom.”

The teams will compete in a new league created by the Electronic Gaming Federation with other universities from Power 5 conferences — the Pac-12, SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12 — but team members and the exact games have not been determined.

For these esport student-athletes, not much is known about the athletic skills and long-term effects gaming has on an individual, Dr. James Onate, co-director of the Sports Medicine Movement Analysis and Performance Program at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, said.

“We are trying to look at things from a performance and health standpoint,” Onate said. “It is no different from us looking at stroke survivors or football players. How do we help them do what they are trying to do at the highest level for as long as possible?”

There are people who do not think of esports as a sport, but Onate believes his research will show a lot of similarities with athletes in other sports.

Anyone can play games, but anyone can play sports too, Onate said. Playing at the highest level is different. He said there are plenty of athletes who can throw a ball 60 yards in the air, but not many who can do it “accurately with people coming after them in front of 100,000 people.”

“I think that same thing in some of our elite gamers,” Onate said. “They have got skills, and when they start playing in competition, they are able to slow the game down, process it and handle stress at a high level.”

Even though esport athletes will be a large part of the research, it will not just focus on people at the highest level, he said.

“[Our research] would be running the gamut. Everything from looking to the highest level to looking at the incoming freshman who games a little bit,” Onate said. “We want everything from the physiological standpoint, psychological standpoint and the sociological standpoint.”

In the end, Grzybowski said Baldwin and Bradshaw were right. She believes that when you do something at Ohio State, you “go big or go home.”

“Ohio State is the ideal place because we can bring together the research side of things, the student life and competitive side of things and the academics,” Grzybowski said. “We have all three, and our administration are all on board and supportive of this effort.”

2/13/19, 10:06 a.m.: article was upadated to reflect that both the Departments of Athletics and Business Advancement were involved

2/13/19, 1:55 p.m.: article was updated to show the initial idea was not bring esport competiton to campus but to support and enhance esports on campus.