Q and A: Building varsity esports at mighty Kansas

University Business talks with coach Michelle Compton-Muñoz about future of gaming at KU
By: | November 13, 2019

The University of Kansas recently announced plans to elevate esports to the varsity level.

For an institution with as much academic and athletic swagger as the Jayhawks, that’s bad news for competitors because Kansas takes its programs seriously.

Among its alumni, KU boasts 352 Fulbright scholars, 27 Rhodes scholars, seven Pulitzer Prize winners and four astronauts. Its Special Education, Architecture, Business, City Management and University Honors programs are among the best in the nation. Its men’s basketball team has won five national titles and counts Dr. James Naismith (who invented the game) and Wilt Chamberlain among its famous connections. Even its debate teams have sent more teams to the national competition than any other school.

As for video gaming … there’s not much history, other than students playing competitively as a club and having some success in Overwatch and League of Legends. The most boastful, somewhat-unrelated factoid is that Kansas played a part in helping the World Wide Web get off the ground in the 1980s.

But this launch of varsity esports at the Division I level is creating a stir for sure, especially among its ever-growing community of gamers. News of the announcement – with the Jayhawks opening competition in January as members of the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) – spread quickly on sites all over the web.

Launching the program has been a true campus-wide effort that has included staff in the KUIT department and the KU Memorial Union, whose Director David Mucci and Senior Associate Director JJ O’Toole-Curran were instrumental in leading the effort to give esports a new status.

One of the main drivers of the program has been Michelle Compton-Muñoz (left), the Associate Director of Marketing, Media, and Programs at KU Memorial Union and the new Kansas esports coach. University Business spoke with Compton-Muñoz to get some insight on this launch:

What led to the decision to form a varsity level team at Kansas?

Over the last several years we’ve been watching esports develop as the next big, new frontier for higher education programs. So many peer institutions and area schools were starting formalized teams. Additionally our conversations with current students continued to show that they had thriving club teams that were competing under the KU name and needed support to take them to the next level.

What was the reaction to announcement on campus and beyond?

Folks have been very excited for sure. The first few hours after the ESPN article were full of people reaching out via email, Discord, and even Facebook. Lots of alums were interested in being able to see what happens with the team or getting involved. And the students are extremely excited for tryouts on Nov. 17th.

How many students are currently part of the KU Gaming Community? This is difficult to answer. They have 240 folks registered through Rock Chalk Central (the University’s student org management platform) but more than that in their Discord server.

You have chosen to compete in League of Legends initially? How and why did you choose that game?

We looked at several factors. First, this was a game in which our students were currently competing with a sizable amount of interest. Second, we knew we wanted to compete in a game that other area NACE members were, as well. Third, Riot Games has a great collegiate program that was easy for us to tap into.

Tell us about your role as coach. How important is leadership, mentoring and training in fostering a successful esports program? I see my initial focus as full program development, and included in that is leadership and personal development of the students. This is my background and expertise and an area of focus for the KU Memorial Union. We have robust existing programs within the student programming board, a community service organization, and student-run radio. We strive to ensure that our students have all the support and opportunities they need to both be successful in their academics and also to leave KU with a well-rounded experience. As part of KU Student Affairs, we take to heart the motto “we make learning possible.” This includes being able to have access to leadership development training, talk about what they learn from their experiences in college, getting connected with mentors/networks, and more. That network within the broader department of KU Student Affairs also allows us additional access to some of the most supportive staff at KU who can help with specialized needs like physical and mental wellness.

KU’s Memorial Union boasts space for gamers who compete in esports and consoles games. Photo courtesy of KU

Two years ago, a space was created on the first floor of the Memorial Union called the Roll20 Esports Lounge. What equipment does the lounge have? Have there been any modifications to that area since it opened? Are there any plans to adjust the space or adapt it in the future? Yes! This space was for sure our first dive into esports and was built out in partnership with the alums who started Roll20. That space can be reserved by anyone with a KUID. Some inventory can be seen on that website, but we have a plethora of equipment including consoles like an N64, Wii, Switch, Xbox, and PlayStation, as well as a large inventory of video games. We did some renovations this past summer that included updating furniture and some décor in the space.

Many students who participate in esports continue on in careers either around gaming or in industries such as digital arts, marketing or business, including former Kansas Esports director Evan Czarnik, who graduated from the School of Business. What opportunities exist for gamers academically at Kansas as they forge their way toward future careers. There are so many academic departments that complement esports involvement. The applicants for the varsity team include many majors you would expect like engineering and computer science, but also include finance, physics, and political science. The skills learned through working on a team of any kind translate into any field.

This launches next year. Do you already have competitors lined up or a schedule of games? We will be competing in Riot’s collegiate program that kicks off in January and have been lining up other schedules.

Now that it is an official varsity sport, do you expect interest to grow? Have you discussed recruitment strategies, including the potential for scholarships? We are hopeful for scholarships in the future but currently do not have funding or a donor for that. Once the team is in place and kicked off, we do plan to focus on further recruitment for incoming students.