September 29, 2020


Students Find More than Gaming in DePaul Esports

The Esports market, or competitive video gaming, is anticipated to surpass $1.5 billion by 2023. At DePaul, Esports is even a BIG EAST-sanctioned program. DePaul’s director of Student Involvement, Courtney James, talks about DePaul’s unique Esports community, which draws hundreds of student gamers. Through their participation, the students find connection, an inclusive environment and even inspiration for career paths. James also discusses some of DePaul’s upcoming Esports events and the pandemic’s impact on the industry.



​LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I'm your host, Linda Blakley, Vice President of University Marketing and Communications.

Esports is a world of competitive organized video gaming where individuals and teams face off against one another. The Esports market is massive. It is anticipated to surpass $1.5 billion by 2023, paving the way for post-graduation career opportunities for DePaul students from game design to sports management.

Today I'm talking with Courtney James, DePaul Student Affairs Director of Student Involvement, about DePaul Esports. We'll discuss DePaul's own Esports community, its four core pillars, and commitment to inclusivity and the pandemic's impact on the industry.

Thank you, Courtney, for joining me today. I'm so excited to learn more about this.

COURTNEY JAMES: Thanks for having me, Linda. I'm excited to talk about our community.

LINDA BLAKLEY: For those who aren't familiar, can you give us an overview of DePaul Esports?

COURTNEY JAMES: Absolutely. So, the DePaul Esports program launched back in January of 2018 and really, the convergence that got us started was this mixture of extreme student interest along with some collective efforts on behalf of the BIG EAST which, as listeners may know, is the athletic conference that DePaul participates in.

So, the BIG EAST decided to formally compete in two titles that year, Rocket League and League of Legends. So, we started with a group of DePaul administrators and some students who were able to give feedback to talk about how we might be able to serve this community, both to participate in that BIG EAST initiative but also to amplify the experience for the student gamers that we had.

So, our program is relatively new. We've been around for around three years now. But we are, we have had some really explosive growth in terms of student interest. We have around 1,300 students who are part of our Esports community and they compete in a myriad of titles and participate in a number of different ways with the program.

So, our program really has four core student engagement components. We have our Gaming Center which, if you've been on the concourse level of the Loop, has Alienware PCs and consoles for students to participate in.

We have our competitive teams. We actually have fourteen different teams that students can compete on ranging from participation in PC gaming, console gaming which are things like Nintendo Switches, PlayStations, Xboxes, things like that. Then we even actually have a virtual reality team as part of our program as well.

Then we have our student organizations that make up our community. We have a number of different organizations, some that have been around even for longer than the formal life of the program, like Defrag, and then some other organizations like League of Legends, Rocket League, DSmash which is our Super Smash Brothers group and then we also have one-off Esports programs that we do for the casual, the casual community to get engaged with Esports as well.

So, it's been quite a robust three years in terms of getting our students engaged and really starting to amplify their experience and really create a space for them here at DePaul.

LINDA BLAKLEY: You've created quite a comprehensive system in a very short period of time.

COURTNEY JAMES:​ Oh yeah. We've been very, very fortunate. I think the thing that has really worked well for us is students that are involved in Esports and gaming, they are so passionate about this. When we got started, we actually heard about this statistic from a nationwide study that found that 47 percent of students who were involved in Esports and gaming weren't involved in anything else on campus.

Well, when we started our program at DePaul, we eventually had the opportunity to replicate that survey in our student community and we found that our numbers were right on par with that. 48 percent of DePaul students who are involved in the Esports and gaming community aren't doing anything else co-curricularly other than e-sports.

So, when you think about the fact that we have, you know, 1,200 student gamers at DePaul, there is a huge number of students. That is almost six hundred students that this is what they are involved in. This is their passion area. This is what they care about. And it's not only the thing that they care about in terms of the thing that they like to do for fun in their free time, it's also the thing that they're studying, right?

A lot of our student gamers are involved in CDM or business or communication, and they are finding ways to integrate their academic curriculum with this interest that they've had not only at DePaul but growing up as well.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Okay. So, I have to ask another elementary question. I'm not very savvy when it comes to games like Rocket League or Overwatch. You've talked a little bit about this already but how do students participate? How do they compete?

COURTNEY JAMES: Yeah. So, I would answer that question two different ways. First, there's something called LAN events. So, LAN events are in-person. It's when you, you know, you're able to have ,bring a computer, bring a console and you're able to do something in-person.

So pre-pandemic, we had a lot of different LAN type events. So, we would have students go to the Gaming Center and compete in-person. They would be able to have a code or use a system with a person who was in that same space as them. So, that's one way that they can compete.

One of the beauty, beautiful parts about Esports is they also have this spectacular online network thatm, and an infrastructure that has been built for them so that they can compete from a distance.

So, for a PC gamer, what they'll do, they'll go onto their computer and they'll log into a publisher's platform and they'll be able to enter a code or enter a room, whatever that publisher has setup, and they'll be able to compete in that realm.

A lot of the consoles also have that ability. So, they'll have again, a code, or they'll have something that they can connect with someone else who is part of a – who is located in another location so that they can compete that way.

So, Esports is also really unique in the fact that in addition to these you know, codes and communities that people can join, they also have a really robust conversation in this platform called Discord.

So, for folks who aren't familiar with what Discord is, I like to talk about it as like the Group Me or Slack of the gaming community.

So, DePaul's Discord, we actually have around 800 to 900 students who are a part of it that go there to talk about the games that they're interested in but also to talk about other things that are significant to them or other points of connection.

With the start of the school year right now, we're actually seeing a lot of talk in our Discord about classes and about how their classes are going and about getting advice for their setups about how they can transition their gaming setups to their classroom setups and all of these different topics that can come up as part of it too.

So, yeah. I like, in terms of joining, it is similar to when we would get a Zoom invite, right? When somebody sets up a meeting, they'll send you a Zoom invitation and say join this room at this time. At the very baseline, gaming setups are similar to that and journey in on tournaments has a lot of parallel elements. It's a little bit more complicated because of the game element too but I think that's a good baseline to describe how students join and how they compete.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Here's a follow-up. What's the most popular game and why?

COURTNEY JAMES: Well, so worldwide, last I checked, the most popular game in the world is League of Legends. So, this is an industry that is constantly evolving and changing. So, we at DePaul, we have a League of Legends team and it is very popular, but I think one of the other things that's interesting about Esports are there are these ebbs and flows of interest on particular games.

So, at DePaul, you know, I think at one time League of Legends definitely, we, our student community was the most interested in League of Legends. Well, right now there is a new game coming out called Valorant and that is the talk of the town and our students are really excited about it. When we host our DePaul Gaming League, we always see a lot of interest in engagement with it.

But because publishers send, they have updates and they introduce new characters and they have new components to these games, they are everchanging and evolving so it really is this experience that changes over time.

You know, I remember when I was a kid and I had a video game system. You know, I got a Nintendo 64 for Christmas one year. When I got my Nintendo 64, there was a box and I got a disc to put in it to play a game. That was it. The game never changed. If I wanted to play, I had to get that disc and I had to put it in.

Well, because these publishers have invested so much in connecting to the users of the game, now instead of just getting that disc and putting it in a system, they might get a monthly update and they're going to get new characters and they're going to get new storyboards. So, students are constantly engaging and figuring out new and different parts and exploring different parts of these games in a way like you know, particularly some of our faculty and staff may not have experienced gaming as a kid.

So, I think that's one of the other unique components about it and I think that's one of the things that makes that question about what's the most popular game in the world a little bit challenging at times because it really can change based on what's going on with a publisher and really what new updates are available.

LINDA BLAKLEY: It's like having sequels.

Yeah. Yes.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What are some of the other benefits of bringing students together to play Esports versus simply playing games at home?

COURTNEY JAMES: I think I mentioned the survey we did a question or two ago. But we, when we did this sense of belonging survey, one of the questions that we asked our students was, we asked them why they come to the gaming center. Granted, this was pre-pandemic, right?

But we asked them why they come to the Gaming Center and the answers to the question or the choices that they had were to either play with other people, because of the games that it offered, to compete, and other varieties. I apologize. I don't remember the exact language.

But one of the things that we found was that 78 percent of our respondents gave us answers that they were going to the Gaming Center to connect with other people. They weren't going because of the games that it offered. Yes, they wanted to have the game that they wanted to play there, but that wasn't the driving force.

People, we by nature as humans are, want to interact with other people, right? That's one of the biggest challenges that we've had throughout this pandemic right now. We want that connection. We want to know that somebody else, that we can relate to somebody else, that we can connect with somebody else, that someone else sees our perspective.

And that same mentality goes for Esports as well. People want to be in spaces where they feel seen and they feel understood and they feel that sense of connection and that's what that survey told us. 78 percent of our students were telling us they wanted to go to our space and do things in-person and with other people because of that sense of connection.

So, I think while yes, you can do these things online and a lot of our students will. They will practice online by themselves. They will practice online at home but they will come and do it in this community either when we were in person or in this online environment now because they want that sense of connection.

I think that's one of the things that through this pandemic in particular has been really valuable for us as a program. Esports had this natural infrastructure that we could lean into that allowed for us to continue to allow for that connection and that sense of community and it's really helped us. You know, I think that our students who are involved right now feel connected to each other and feel connected to DePaul in a very different way and it's just been a really powerful experience to continue to allow them to you know, have DePaul be that thing that brings them together.

We are social beings and so, and I agree with you. We seek out community. Can you elaborate on the community's four core pillars? What is being done to be more inclusive and welcoming?

COURTNEY JAMES: I think about a year into our program, what we realized was when we were talking about our program and talking about Esports, we were seeing all of these amazing benefits come out of it but we didn't have like a nice, polished way to talk about them.

So, our Steering Committee, which is a cross department – or cross university team with folks from the Executive Vice President's Office, Enrollment Management, Information Services, Student Affairs, Res Ed and Housing, you know, all sorts of folks around the committee. I think that we actually have you know, twelve or fifteen. So, I apologize if I'm missing folks. We've got some – a few faculty members on it as well.

But we came together and we were talking about how these great things were coming out of our community but again, we didn't have that way to consistently talk about them.

So, we established these four core pillars of entertainment, academics, leadership and inclusion. And really going through them, I'll start with entertainment.

The entertainment side are a lot of these, you know, co-curricular experiences we do that allow for people to come together. There are one-off Esports events. There are things that happen in our gaming center. Right now in our virtual environment, it's our DePaul Gaming League. We're doing that to allow for students to be entertained but also build a sense of community.

When it comes to academics, I think that Esports is really unique in the fact that a lot of these students who are gaming also have interest in this as a career field or they – they – they want to see how the industry is going to evolve and develop even if they don't have a major that's affiliated with it.

One of our students actually, he's a, I was talking to him yesterday. I was talking to his roommate yesterday. He is in musical theater, he is in our School of Music but he is also a player on our Overwatch team. Again, not necessarily something that, he might not necessarily find a career in Esports but he is interested in the industry.

So, academically, we've really been trying to find ways for students to connect their co-curricular experience to things that they can learn and see potential career paths and connect with people in the industry and see all of these different avenues that exist.

And then our faculty on the committee have also been working really hard to start to create academic integrations because the interest is there.

Actually, Andy Clark from the College of Business, is introducing Esports, an Esports class, for this upcoming year which students will be able to participate in which will be really exciting.

Then in terms of leadership, those are the experiences that we, we intentionally develop for our students to learn how to lead no matter what setting they're in. They might be using Esports right now as a vessel that they're developing these skills through, but they can apply the skillset and knowledge that they have in a hundred different ways when they leave.

So, when they're the captain of you know, our Beat Saber virtual reality team right now, they're learning team management skills. They're learning communication skills. They're learning how to work with an overarching agency that's a league administrator. They're learning all of these skills that are going to be valuable to them moving forward. So, we've really been spending some time to really make sure that the students have what they need to be successful in those skills and then apply them moving forward.

And then our fourth value of inclusion which I know you asked a little bit more in-depth too, Esports I think oftentimes gets a bad rap as a, as an industry that is very dominated by men and that has a lot of white folks participating in it.

And when you look at national engagement and things of that nature, you know, it's not hard to see why that is being drawn from this.

So, at DePaul, what we've really been trying to do is really look at who is participating and how are we shaping a welcoming and inclusive environment and experience for our students.

When you look at our metrics, we are, similarly to national trends, we have more men engaged than women. About 85 percent of our participants are male students and about 15 percent are female. It's actually higher than national trends but still, not equitable to the male to student ratio here at DePaul.

So, we intentionally work to create experiences for female gamers to come in and feel welcomed. We work a lot with HER CDM which is a student organization to bring them into the space and to ensure that they feel welcomed and have that space specifically designed for them and for female students to create that sense of community.

One of the things we found is that while we have more men show up in the space, women actually show up at a higher rate of return. They come back more frequently than men do. So, we've paid special attention to that as well.

And then one of the other things that we've done that's really unique to DePaul, you may have heard, our listeners may have heard, about the Office of Health Promotion and Wellness's Bystander Intervention Program.

Well, for those of you that aren't familiar with the Bystander Intervention Program, what I like to talk about it, it is teaching people how to step in when they see things starting to go wrong. And in the Esports community, that's called toxicity.

So, you know, about a year and a half ago, I had this idea of could we integrate bystander intervention training that was specifically designed for our student gamers so that we could help teach them how to step in in these online environments that were potentially becoming toxic and really start to identify that problematic behavior.

We introduced it last fall and it's going really, really well for us. We, and we've started to see a change that we, see less toxic language. We see more people stepping in when things do become problematic. To me, that is very Vincentian, right? That is a distinguisher for DePaul University because we want our Esports community to be held to a higher standard and we want them to be the leaders.

And by creating this environment where you know, people recognize problematic behavior and can step in, I think that is us working to truly live that inclusion value and it's us teaching our students to create a space that is welcoming to all. And it's really a goal and a driver for us as part of the program.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, it sounds like we are answering the question what must be done?

Even though a majority of students are learning remotely, is DePaul Esports hosting or participating in any events this year?

COURTNEY JAMES: We're doing a lot of online events. You know, we're really going to have to wait and see how the pandemic shifts to see if we do any in-person events moving forward. But we are doing a number of things online.

So, we have a, what we call our DePaul Gaming League, which is a weekly gaming series that students can participate in a myriad of titles. But then we're also doing a few other offerings. We've got like, a build a PC demo coming up where students can learn how to build a gaming computer. And then we do a number of different streaming series.

We just wrapped up our Esports career chats and we're about to launch a new series about getting involved in Esports. So, those are some of the highlighted events that we've had so far for our program.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Do you think Esports has helped recruit new students to DePaul?

COURTNEY JAMES: Oh, absolutely. Back to that sense of community survey, one of the things that we found, we actually asked students if Esports influenced their decision to attend DePaul and what we found was 5 percent of our students who are part of the program told us that Esports is the only reason they came to DePaul. Another 14 percent told us that they didn't know about the program before their campus tour but knowing the program existed actually helped them decide to come to DePaul.

So, we know that we're seeing a direct correlation between purely having a program and having a robust experience for our students and recruiting and retaining new students to DePaul.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I have one more question for you. Can you talk about some of the career options available to students interested in the field?

COURTNEY JAMES: Oh, Linda, you got another three hours? You know, Esports is really this, it is this growing and very robust industry and what people in the industry oftentimes talk about is you know, it's similar to traditional sports where you have marketing people in traditional sports. You have team managers. You have coaches. You have ticket salespeople. All of those careers also exist for the Esports industry.

In that career chats that I just talked about, I talked about a minute or so ago, we had people from all sorts of different backgrounds. We had a professional broadcaster. We had someone from Dell Technologies that writes curriculum. We had someone from the varsity Esports foundation that works with high school programs. Chris Schneider from the BIG EAST joined us to talk about his work and how he incorporates it with traditional sports.

There are just so many different options when it comes to Esports careers and this is really the start of it. I think as we continue and this industry continues to emerge, we're going to see more and more continue to show up as opportunities for students.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Thank you, Courtney, for speaking with me today. I learned so much about the community and Gaming Center and events. It is wonderful to hear about a safe space for DePaul students to connect with one another and simply do something fun and enjoyable, especially during these challenging times.

To discover how you can get involved in DePaul Esports or learn more about the community, check out their website.

I'm Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to this episode of DePaul Download, presented by DePaul's Division of University Marketing and Communications.