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Michigan State esports program growth shows in scope of player recruitment, development

Grayson Harding

The state’s best esports players are looking toward playing for MSU’s varsity programs, thanks to the addition of scholarships.

Michigan State’s esports program is in its second year, but already has set some big goals. The program offers partial scholarships to its varsity players and has several ranked players nationally and in the state of Michigan. It has also competed in several of the nation’s premier tournaments for collegiate programs, such as the Riptide 2023 tournament in Ohio, where the Super Smash Bros. team placed second.

Similar to any college varsity program, there are significant time demands from being a full-time student and part of a team. At Michigan State, esports program director Chris Bilski and his coaches are raising the standard for the players competitively and academically.

Grayson Harding is the head coach of MSU’s Super Smash Bros. team. Harding, a Grand Rapids, Michigan native, is a former high school All-American in track and field, and ran cross country and track at Aquinas College.

Grayson Harding

“I was a student athlete in undergrad, and that’s the lens I approached when setting up this program,” said Harding. “There are just a lot of parallels between what is expected of an esports player as well as a traditional athlete. Definitely learning how to balance everything is huge.”

Harding sees similarities in the life of an esports varsity player, between a full-time course load, living on or close to campus, and competing against some of the top gamers in the nation.

“Our expectations for players are similar to that of a traditional athlete,” said Harding. “We look at 15 hours of practice. That includes competing against other schools, practicing, etc. And some weeks to be frank, we have a lot more time, because if we’re traveling to an event or something, there could be an all-day commitment. So that’s one of the more fulfilling parts of being involved with a team like this. You really get a lot of good experience with balancing a lot of competing priorities, and I think that’s a really good life lesson to learn.

“The hardest part probably to balance has been academics. They’re students first, so we always encourage them and respect that. But yeah, balancing academics can surely be difficult.”

For Bilski, placing a focus on other aspects of college life for incoming players was just as important as gaming.

“At Michigan State, I think we’re taking a more holistic approach to esports,” said Bilski. “A lot of schools focus purely on competition when it comes to esports, but we’re looking at other aspects as well.”

Bilski noted that esports abides by a four-pillar model designed for the players: campus, club, competition, and career.

“I think it’s the emphasis on creating community, and the emphasis on utilizing our program to help further student’s careers and tying career aspects into that, whether it’s building a portfolio or helping you to get real-life job experience through the program that helps differentiate us from other programs across the country,” said Bilski.

Outside of a willingness to buy into the culture Bilski and his staff are laying, finding strong students in the classroom is another primary point of emphasis for future incoming recruiting classes. For evidence, look no further than last year’s freshman class.

“We definitely have an academic focus to our team,” said Bilski. “Our incoming class, I believe the average GPA was over a 4.0. I’m looking for students who feel strongly about academics, and perform strongly, and I think that there is a relationship between how you perform in the classroom and how you perform in a competition.”

One of the freshmen from this year’s class is Drew Farrell, from Holland, Michigan. Farrell is ranked 15th in the state of Michigan in Super Smash Bros., and competes on one of the varsity squads this year. He’s also hoping to be accepted into the Broad College of Business. After moving into his dorm and getting settled, he’s getting acclimated to his new life, filled with teammates and a strong support group.

“Having that support system really helps, especially with all of the other Esports members,” Farrell said.

Dyson Mingo and Daniel Weatherspoon are both on the Super Smash Bros. varsity team, and ranked inside the top-10 in tMichigan. Mingo is ranked fourth in Michigan, and Weatherspoon is seventh. Weatherspoon, a senior astrophysics major, acknowledged how tough it can be to balance both esports and academics.

“They got all our schedules so they look and see when everybody is free, but that’s our free time also. That’s our work time,” said Weatherspoon. “There’s definitely some late nights doing work sometimes.”

Mingo, a sophomore environmental science major, was also upfront about the time demands, but said that the game, compounded by being around his teammates, makes playing on a daily basis and finding a balance a healthy challenge.

“We do have a 15-hour requirement to play every week, but we kinda meet that with ease,” said Mingo. “I go to see my friends at Shaw, and I get caught up playing for hours and hours, and I realize it’s 1in the morning. You have to have self-control. We definitely lose a bit of free time.”

Harding is adamant that success for the program is helping the players forge a balance between the aforementioned challenges they encounter on a daily basis, and working to help them do so.

“If we can get to the end of the first semester and have players succeeding academically, as well as learning how to find that balance within their own life between being a player and having time for a social life and those kinds of things, I would consider that a success for the program,” Harding said.

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