Dramatic changes likely for campus esports arenas

Social distancing measures are only part of the new plans being discussed at colleges and universities. Some are much more drastic.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic halted almost all campus activities in March, many colleges and universities were taking precautions to ensure the health and safety of students and faculty.

In their esports arenas – which can be high-traffic, high-use spaces – schools were staggering hours of use, limiting the number of students in those spaces and implementing strong sanitizing measures.

When those students eventually return to campus, they can expect to see those continue as well as far more dramatic mitigating strategies being put in place, according to several college leaders contacted by University Business.

“It’s safe to say the [esports arena] operation will look much different this fall than it did prior to the pandemic,” said Armand Buzzelli, Director of Campus Recreation at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania.

Courtney James, Director of Student Involvement at DePaul University says, “We had some small-scale cleaning procedures in place, but nothing quite to the extent of what we potentially will need when we reopen this time around.”

How much different?

Nate Meeker, Director of Esports at the University of Akron, which has one of the top programs in the country and some 2,500 gamers on campus, says they may have to reduce their three arenas’ daily-use capacity from 150 down to 35 or 40 gamers to start.

Akron is also considering two very drastic but necessary measures – temperature checks for those who enter their facilities and installing clear barriers between workstations, as well as in other areas.

“We planning for the worst and hoping for the best, and developing middle plans as well,” Meeker said. “We’ve already installed some of the Plexiglass shields across campus. We’re going to be continuing to do that in the esports space to not only separate the student assistants who are at the front desk but then the computers themselves.”

The best college esports arenas: Check out our series on Schools with Cool Esports Facilities Part I here and Part II here

Akron isn’t alone. The University of Delaware student center and its esports program are looking at a number of options – and consulting with the school’s medical director, facility colleagues and its vice president for student affairs. Those may include:

  • Installing partitions between workstations
  • Reconfiguring its room setup to allow greater social distancing
  • Online staggered scheduling of workstation time
  • Logging all users so they can enact contact trace in the event of an outbreak
  • Requiring masks
  • Allowing students to bring in their own peripherals (e.g. keyboard, mouse, headset). The original policy required users to use only their equipment.

“All these spaces are interconnected, and we are making contingency plans based on multiple scenarios including a regular opening date with social distancing, delayed (later fall) opening, and a hybrid with some students on campus and others online,” says Tony Doody, Director of University Student Centers at Delaware.

Jason Bauer, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs, says he has been meeting with administration frequently at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, to discuss several possible solutions at his school, including limiting the number of potential users per computer and assigning individuals to a computer, cleaning stations in between and after use; and even exploring other spaces on campus so that all stations are used and there is a safe distance between stations.

Bauer admits too, “wearing masks might be an expectation.”

Building on early strategies

Before the shutdown, schools such as Delaware, Robert Morris and the University of California, Irvine, were doing deep cleanings of their facility and using social distancing measures, as best they could.

“When we became more aware of the dangers of coronavirus, we put in some modifications that included requiring users to stagger into every other station, use their own peripherals,” Buzzelli says. “We added additional hand sanitizer dispensers, and we kept a larger quantity of disinfectants on hand for each patron to use before and after each gaming session. We are still working on developing additional protocols as best practices continue to be shared.”

Like many campus esports arenas, UC-Irvine has opened its doors to its entire student body. It also has welcomed in the community for recreational play and viewing. That is likely to change.

Mark Deppe, UCI Esports Director and the commissioner of the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF), says he expects a limited reopening of the facility in the fall – with one-third maximum capacity. They too will reduce hours and staffing, as well as tours. And he says there will be lots of signage and messages to inform people of the changes.

In addition, a number of hygienic measures will be implemented. UCI Esports will:

  • Sanitize peripherals, desks and chairs between use
  • Require face masks be worn
  • Require people to wash hands before they enter
  • Will usher in a new sick policy that guests and gamers must stay home if they have any CDC-identified COVID-19 symptoms.

“Much of our response will be guided by state and county decisions,” Deppe says.

One consideration that Deppe, James and Meeker point out is that workstations at a minimum will need to be six feet apart. Most right now are four feet. That not only includes side-to-side space but also computers that might face each other.

James also notes how much different PC play is from console play, which is popular on many campuses.

“There needs to be specific attention played to how gamers game differently when they are playing a PC versus a console device and how crowds watch those games,” she says. “PC gaming may be a little bit easier because when one student leaves a computer, it’s easy to outline cleaning procedures before another sits down.  However with consoles, though, a lot of the positive experience of our student comes from the quick nature of consoles to turn over from one user to the next. Gaming Centers will have to slow this transition and work to maintain the closely-gathered crowds that often times convene around consoles.”

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Full Academic Esports Conference Agenda: Check out all of the speakers and sessions slated for the inaugural event here.

Challenges in the air

One unique new esports arena that will be unveiled once students return is Shenandoah University’s Armory Garage space. Though it can be an open-air facility because of its large garage doors, Professor and Director of Esports Joey Gawrysiak says they will be taking strong precautions with their gamers and staff.

“The thought right now is that we will use every other computer in our arena and limit the total number of people to no more than 20 at a time in the entire arena,” says. “We have the ability to make our arena open air, so on nicer days we may allow more. We already have wipes, hand sanitizer stations, and gloves available for students, faculty and staff.  The plan is to have closed practices during practice times limited to just the teams for that time period, but more open during non-practice times. Players will be encouraged to practice from home when not having a scheduled practice time in the arena.”

But he says, “These are some of the things we are thinking about right now. Of course, this is a fluid situation. If there is no in-person school when we are set to return in August, we will do what we are doing now and continue online practice, competitions, productions and instruction.”

Chris Burt is the Esports Editor for University Business magazine and the Program Chair for the Academic Esports Conference and Expo. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com or on Twitter @esportsChair.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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