You could give your coach a blank esports infrastructure check to buy the most expensive and powerful gaming supercomputers on the market, or you could just have some enterprising students cobble the esports technology together.
Dean Stevens, director of esports at Morningside College in Iowa, took the latter route when the school launched esports three years ago.
“There’s a long tradition of gamers building their own PCs,” says Stevens, who’s also a computer science instructor. “It instilled a sense of ownership in our students.”
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Schools across the country are adopting and adapting many other gaming traditions as they build esports infrastructure and technology into their arenas and other facilities. Just how they do it, of course, often depends on resources and the ingenuity of coaches and students.
1. Don’t lock the esports infrastructure down.
For their practice and performance space, Stevens and the students on his five teams—who compete in six different video games—took over a former distance learning room and renamed it “the Nexus.”
Over the last few years, Stevens has continued to add esports infrastructure in stages. For example, he bought some very flexible gaming chairs and, keeping to Morningside’s DIY philosophy, the students assembled them.
And while some directors keep the esports technology “locked down,” Stevens says he takes a more permissive approach. He has given a few students the administrative passwords and allows them to install trendy, new games.
“They are also responsible for keeping the drivers and games up to date,” he says, “but I also tell them not to keep anything important on the machines.”
2. Find a home that’s wired for esports technology.
When the chief information officer helps start the esports program, there’s a good chance the team will be outfitted with the esports technology it needs to compete.
Chris Hoke, the CIO at the University of Jamestown in North Dakota, also knew the perfect campus location to locate team headquarters when the program began three years ago.
His teams, and their 24 computers, moved into a facility that had been used by the university’s defunct TV and radio stations because the spot had sufficient esports infrastructure—that is, bandwidth, electrical power and a powerful internet connection separate from the campus network.
“The biggest cost when starting the program is you have to buy all the computers, and they’re not the typical desktop machines you’d buy for office staff,” Hoke says. “What was very appealing for our administration is that the ongoing costs are not that high.”
Unlike in other athletics, esports teams don’t have to travel to compete. Plus, many of Jamestown’ players use their own game accounts, which means the university doesn’t have to purchase many licenses.
One big esports technology challenge had been keeping all the software updated, which can mean inconvenient and sometimes lengthy downtimes for the team’s computers.
So, Hoke bought a LAN cache server. This device downloads the updates and then shares them with the individual computers in about 30 seconds, rather than the 20 minutes it can take to update from the internet.
As far as the other esports infrastructure, Hoke replaces about a quarter of his computers each year. “Even though we have keyboards and mice for all our stations, we do allow students to bring their own in,” Hoke says. “Gamers tend to be particular about those things.”
3. Build a revenue-generating arena.
And how do higher ed’s esports powerhouses get started? Kathy Chaing, esports assistant director at the University of California, Irvine, said her school wanted to create a self-sustainable facility that could generate revenue.
Since 2016, the university’s teams have competed and scrimmaged in a 3,500-square-foot arena where other students can use one of 60 PCs for $4/hour. Twelve computers are reserved for the varsity team.
“The main goal was to create a home for gamers on campus and to let people learn more about esports,” Chiang says.
Another section of the arena has furniture and monitors where students and clubs can connect their own consoles. The arena, which fits up to 50 people, can also be converted into an event space where spectators can watch esports competitions.
A sponsor has provided some exercise equipment for players who want to more than stretch during breaks. An exercise physiologist also works with the team regularly, Chiang says.
The program is planning to move into a bigger facility in early 2020. For one thing, its staff has grown from two to eight full-time employees. As far as esports infrastructure, the new facility will have three practice rooms with six computers each, a separate production studio and more ample office space.
The original arena will remain open to public gaming.
“We get a lot of calls to consult with other schools, and one thing most people don’t consider until it hits them in the face is having to work closely with their IT groups,” Chiang says. “You have to make sure your network is set up for gaming—you can’t run it the same way as other campus networks.”
4. Keep mobility in mind when buying hardware.
At Akron University in Ohio, the esports teams, along with their 96 computers, set up shop in three different spaces when the program began in fall 2018.
Esports club coordinator Nate Meeker and others had spent the previous six months planning the esports infrastructure, a process that comprised rewiring 5,200 square feet of space, providing sufficient power and bandwidth and securing sponsorships.
The biggest task was ordering, moving in and setting up all the equipment, including chairs, monitors, keyboards and desks. Students assisted with the final set up to prepare for launch, when more than 1,000 people attended various opening day activities.
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“If I had to do the purchasing all over again, we’d probably go a little smaller with the computers,” Meeker says. “We’d want them to be more portable, because we didn’t realize we’d be moving them as much.”
In fact, dozens of computers have been moved around campus for esports activities.
Here are another couple of things to keep in mind when starting out with esports infrastructure and technology:
- Make sure you have a plan to hide the cables, because there are going to be thousands of them snaking all over any esports space.
- Work with IT to protect gamers’ personal data. This will also allow gamers to get past the institution’s firewalls to the gaming sites they need to access, says Meeker.
- Look for deals on computers and other hardware.
“There are definitely companies willing to help you out with startup costs as far as equipment,” Meeker says. “Reach out and see what they have available—sometimes there’s even free equipment.”
Matt Zalaznick is UB’s senior writer.