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Michigan universities expand into eSports in a big way

Grand Valley State esports players at their gaming stations.
Christopher Bilski
Grand Valley State esports players at their gaming stations.

Grand Valley State, Ferris State and Cleary Universities are throwing money and building facilities for esports, looking to capture the growing market.

New arenas are being built at several universities across the state of Michigan, but not for the sports one would expect. These arenas are for esports, a growing industry and competitive sport at the college and university level.

Institutions around the country are grappling with the idea of varsity esports, as well as academic programs related to esports. The heightened interest is leading to investment into facilities to compete, train and to recruit members.

Grand Valley State recently made a big move into the esports space. The Laker Esports Center, or LEC, opened as part of the Kirkhof Center in Allendale in Dec. 2021. Renovations began last spring with the hopes that a new esports center will be a great investment for the school and its future plan of varsity esports, which is coming in the fall of 2022.

The Laker Esports Center has 24 gaming stations, filled with high-end Alienware computers and modern chairs and desks for gaming. The center will be used for varsity level esports, but also for the GVSU club teams competing in the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC). These teams and individual gamers are permitted use of the LEC as well. Recently, the LEC also hosted a high school esports tournament with teams from all around the region.

“Grand Valley State’s investment into esports has come in a couple of ways. First, they built out a premium esports space on campus called the Laker Esports Center. They also made the decision to hire a full-time staff member, myself, to help support and grow esports on campus,” said Christopher Bilski, head of esports at GVSU.

GVSU is not the only university investing in state-of-the-art arenas for esports. Ferris State in Big Rapids has also made large strides to invest in its esports program. The Center for Visual Learning on campus will offer the opportunity to host esports tournaments, a replay suite to analyze clips from the competitions and an announcer’s studio for events.

“Our club is very proud to be one of the best production teams in the country and want to build on that. The program and arena will bring in a top of its class Digital Animation and Game Design curriculum on top of hosting Digital Media Software Engineering instruction,” said Stoney Hart, Ferris State’s associate director for Competitive Sports.

This past year was Ferris State’s first with an academic program related to esports and the fourth year of club esports. The club team competes in tournaments ranging from national to local tournaments. The esports arena on campus in The Center will host the Michigan Bandwidth Bowl in Fall 2022. As the competition for esports in the region grows, so does the pressure for universities to invest.

“It [esports] is going to continue to grow and generate revenue for everyone involved. You can invest in sponsorships, your teams, community, platforms and so on,” said Hart.

Although the two largest universities in the state, Michigan and Michigan State, do not have plans to build an arena as of yet, smaller schools are realizing the potential in doing so. These smaller schools also understand the need to create more opportunities for students interested in the sport.

Esports players from Cleary University using the E-Blue gaming stations in the esports arena.
Jarod Ericksen
Esports players from Cleary University using the E-Blue gaming stations in the esports arena.

“With the ever-expanding opportunities in the professional esports world as well, higher education institutions owe it to their incoming students to provide them with an opportunity to learn about esports in a controlled environment,” said Jarod Ericksen, head coach of Esports at Cleary University.

The private university located in Howell, officially opened a new esports arena in Fall 2021. The arena includes custom gaming stations and desks built by the gaming supply company, E-Blue. Although there is no current academic program at Cleary in esports, there are plans to make that happen in the next two to three years.

Over 100 miles away, Western Michigan has also provided many opportunities in the sport to its over 16,000 students. With a $500,000 investment in 2018, Western Michigan worked to build an esports arena on its East Campus in Kalamazoo.

“It was a repurposed theater equipped with 36 gaming computers, a production booth and casting room,” said Andre Rattray, director for Club Sports and Esports at Western Michigan.

E-Blue gaming stations in the esports center at Cleary University.
Jarod Ericksen
E-Blue gaming stations in the esports center at Cleary University.

Western Michigan’s club team competes in varsity and club esports across the nation. Students at Western Michigan are at the forefront of new developments on campus.

“I think the most important part of our program is that much of the programming and work is driven by our students. Their input and expertise are essential to the success and growth of the program,” said Rattray.

There is a common theme among all of these schools and the progress they are making in esports, and that is with the students. Without students pushing for changes and applying pressure for the universities to invest, these changes would never occur. Esports has created a community that is so strong and filled with passionate individuals, and now esports will only continue to surpass everyone’s expectations for the sport.

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