North Central University Introduces Varsity Esports Program

glowing blue and green ram head with video game controller graphic
By Abby Dorland
March 11, 2022

On January 24, North Central announced a varsity esports program for the athletic department, citing rising popularity for esports collegiate programs around the country. 

Esports is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. At the high school level, there are over 3,400 schools and 140,000 students participating. The sport consists of different competitive multiplayer video games. Players compete online against other individuals or teams, and fans can watch through streaming platforms, such as Twitch, YouTube, and Discord. 

North Central University’s (NCU) interest in esports stems from a desire to help shape culture as a Christian university. In an informational meeting on campus, Mike Knipe, Athletic Director at NCU, expressed the reasoning behind the new esports program: “We felt like esports was an awesome opportunity for us to go out and change Minneapolis, as a whole, and to interact nationally and globally.”    

The esports program at NCU will consist of four competitively played games: Rocket League, Fortnite, Valorant, and League of Legends. Each team will have a head coach, and professional gamers will be brought in to help advise the teams. Students who don’t make the varsity teams will have the opportunity to play at a club level, with an expanded range of games.

NCU students are excited about the new program and what it means for the university’s future. Michael Herr-Zielke, a sports management major, said, “I think that it is amazing that NCU is taking this opportunity and making it count.” For Roman Sawczak, a digital media major, gaming was a large part of his childhood, and he wanted to expand on his experience. “I was always longing for more strategic play…I’m really excited to have a space where I can really hone in on the competitive side.”

North Central University is currently in the process of completing a lab space for the esports program in Chicago Hall. June 1 is the estimated completion date.  The lab will consist of 25 gaming desktops with state-of-the-art processors, graphics cards, and synchronous 10 GigE wired internets. Knipe estimated the cost of each station at $5000, including keyboards and gaming chairs. Students at the varsity and club levels will have exclusive access to the space, with the exception of bi-monthly game nights open to the rest of the student body.

Current NCU students interested in joining the esports program should sign up for recruitment by the second week of April for tryouts on campus in August. For the first time in the athletic program’s history at NCU, fully online students are eligible to compete. However, if they are geographically distant from campus, they will not be able to access the lab facility and its gaming equipment. 

An athlete on the varsity esports team will be held to the same expectations as student-athletes for other sports. The GPA requirements for a freshman or sophomore is 1.8+ for freshmen and sophomores, and 2.0+ for juniors and seniors. Weekly grade checks and mandatory workouts three times a week are also the standard for North Central athletes. 

Renewable scholarships are available for current and incoming students for the varsity esports team. The number of scholarships given out depends on the size of the program, and the amount offered will be based on skill level. NCU is a member of the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), which means students will play against traditional Division 1 colleges, such as the University of Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Texas A&M.

Knipe confirmed there were donors for the esports program, but he was unable to make further comments on the subject. However, NCU recently announced a collaboration with Elevation Youth, a youth ministry based in North Carolina, to help host esports tournaments with cash prizes. 

Once the lab is completed, NCU is hoping to partner with local Minneapolis high schools such as Minneapolis North and Patrick Henry to start after-school programs. 25 students at a time will be able to play esports games with access to coaches and tutors. 

Colin Miller, IT professor and director of the School of Technology at NCU, offered comments at the conclusion of the informational meeting. “This is exciting. This is really exciting. I wish I could go back to college and do this.”

Student athletes will compete in Rocket League, Fortnite, Valorant and League of Legends.