U. Kentucky takes bold step forward with esports plan

LRP launches Academic Esports Conference and Expo for October 2020
By: | October 22, 2019
Photo courtesy of the University of Kentucky

It’s not easy for any team – academic or athletic – at the University of Kentucky to steal a headline from the men’s basketball team this time of year.

Brash coach John Calipari and the Wildcats have dominated the hardwood and soundbites in the Bluegrass State for more than half a century, winning eight national titles. Even the football team becomes irrelevant once the basketball preseason opens.

But on Monday, breaking news about another team on campus managed to interrupt some of the thunder from the nation’s No. 2-ranked Cats.

The university announced it is starting an esports program and partnering with company Gen.G, a pro sports franchise and global company that connects gamers from Asia to the U.S.  It features three tenets beyond the Student Life team’s game play: academic, community and professional development.

Gen.G plans will pitch in to grow the competitive esports team at UK and assist in the development of gaming-based academic tracks for students, according to Bloomberg News and the University of Kentucky. Gen.G. already runs an academic esports academy in South Korea.

Part of the allure of partnering with Gen.G. is the company’s track record as a leader in inclusion and gender equity; for example, it launched the world’s first all-women’s Fortnite team. The collaboration also will serve to prepare students for life beyond the Lexington campus.

“This partnership will provide further paths for students to explore these pursuits, using technology – and gaming – as a tool,” said Eric N. Monday, UK’s executive vice president for finance and administration. “At the University of Kentucky and at Gen.G, we view gaming, esports and technology as a lens through which prospective, recent and current UK students view their lives and opportunities for lifelong growth and development.”

That vision of the growth was echoed by UK administrators, who says they see opportunities for recruiting, professional development, research, classroom instruction and career paths from esports.

“We view technology, not as an end, but as a tool to help us maximize the success of our students – in their educations and as they pursue all that’s possible at the University of Kentucky,” said Provost David Blackwell. “We want to provide them tools and learning opportunities that will help them succeed at UK, but also as they pursue jobs and careers that will help them succeed throughout life.”

The commitment to esports is part of an overall Smart Campus Initiative, which the university terms as a way to “leverage the use and benefits of innovative technologies throughout its teaching, research, service and health missions.”

The overall mission of the esports academic program contains some unique features:

  • UK and Gen.G plan to host a series of speaker events that will be streamed globally.
  • The University says it will be considering a “gaming-focused certification program” in the coming months.
  • Kentucky is planning to give high schoolers a chance to kickstart their careers with community development programs based around gaming.
  • And UK and Gen.G will not only further develop the school’s Innovation Lab but also plan to collaborate on philanthropic endeavors.

For Gen.G and Kentucky, it’s a win-win.

“We believe the best universities should invest in this vision across the world,” Gen.G. chief executive Chris Park told the University of Kentucky. “The University of Kentucky, with a nationally elite range of academic offerings and an internationally recognized athletic program, is particularly well-equipped to help lead the way.”

LRP launches Academic Esports Conference and Expo

LRP Media Group is launching the inaugural Academic Esports Conference & Expo, to be held October 19-21, 2020, at the Hilton Chicago.

The conference, the first to be completely dedicated to esports and academics, will provide K-12 and collegiate administrators, esports faculty and technology leaders with the tools and structure needed to help launch and advance esports programs and transform learning for all students.

“We are excited to be hosting a conference for K-12, higher ed and technology partners that blends the cutting-edge world of esports with education,” said Chris Burt, Academic Esports Conference Chair. “The global esports industry is $1+ billion and growing every day. One of its fastest-growing segments is in schools, where the benefits for students are immeasurable. Our event will provide attendees with unprecedented insight from top experts on the best practices for not only implementing a successful program but also taking it to the next level.”

As with LRP Media Group’s Future of Education Technology® Conference and UB Tech® Conference, the event will offer a robust learning experience. In addition to in-depth sessions on implementing and administering esports, attendees will learn strategies that leverage both academics and the latest technology to make programs run well.

“To be able to get advice and instruction from the best in the field and then be able to network with those thought leaders and top vendors is really unique,” Burt says. “We are gathering input from experts in the K-12 and higher-ed space who are at the forefront of building programs and heading associations, and who understand the ever-changing nature of gaming and its impact on education. It will be an incredibly fun, collaborative learning environment for attendees.”

Registration opens in February, but LRP is already seeking speakers for the event. Those who would like to submit proposals can visit the website here.

Cyclone that’s building? It’s esports at ISU   

Since 2006, esports has occupied somewhat of a quiet space on the campus at Iowa State University. But with student interest peaking and many schools jumping in to advance their programs, ISU has decided to recognize its team as a club sport while giving a space to those gamers.

The Cyclones’ grassroots group has an incredible 20 teams competing in eight games. After years of being largely an afterthought, its members and coaches are receiving valuable backing from the school.

“We believe from a recruitment or retention standpoint offering something like this could have a major impact on us as a university,” Jason Vlastaras, Associate Director for Student Success, Iowa State Recreation Services, told Des Moines TV station WHO-DT. “We look back at student development theory [and] we tend to point back to a lack of a sense of belongingness, or a feeling of a connection to a campus as a major driving force for students not returning to finish their degree or not coming back for their sophomore year.

“So, we are really hoping that having a centralized space like this to be able to provide this activity will provide students the sense of connection. It will give them that activity and that outlet, and the opportunity to meet other people who are also interested in those activities.”

ISU players realize it may only be a matter of time before the games give way to bigger things: namely scholarships.

“I think we’ve started to see it grow around some of the other colleges around the United States that are really supporting it,” Tanner Hinders, an esports club member, told WHO-DT. “We’re definitely getting a lot of support from the university [now], which is amazing.”


JACKSONVILLE BUILDING ANOTHER ESPORTS ARENA: Less than two years after a tragic shooting incident during a Madden tournament effectively closed the Good Luck Have Fun bar at the Jacksonville Landing in Florida, an entrepreneur is opening Ace Arena in a different part of the city, hoping to cater to a wide cross-section of esports enthusiasts, including those in higher ed. Founder John Sarmie says it will be a “space for education, training, and camps; as well as co-working, corporate meet-ups, and community events.” According to reports, Ace will have more than 120 gaming systems and a stage with a video projection wall for live entertainment. The arena also will be a place for kids to get involved in an esports league and learn about academic and career opportunities.

MAIN STAGE FOR COLLEGE ATHLETES: DreamHack, a massive national festival for all things gaming, returns to Atlanta and the Georgia World Congress Center Nov. 15-17. One of the really cool features again this year is a series of collegiate and high school tournaments. On Saturday, college competitors will duel on the Atlanta Main Stage in League of Legends before battling it out in Fortnite on Sunday. Georgia high schoolers will be on stage Sunday facing off in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Gamers can participate or watch professionals compete in esports tournaments with hundreds of $1.5 million on the line.

FORTNITE’S ‘BLACK HOLE’ NO BIG DEAL? The purposeful shutdown of Fortnite by Epic Games last week left many college gamers in the dark, but it didn’t upset them. One of the world’s most popular games simply doesn’t resonate as strongly in the higher-ed space. “It has memes in it, pop culture references in it, all the Fortnite dances; it naturally caters to a younger audience,” Weber Cheng, esports co-president at Chapman University in Orange, CA, told the school’s student newspaper. However, they did commend Epic’s ploy as savvy strategy. “That’s one of the best marketing moves we’ve seen in years from a game studio. I don’t know anyone who didn’t know about Fortnite being shut down,” said Zach Jagoda, a senior computer science major.

STEPPING UP: Illinois Wesleyan, one of the country’s elite varsity programs, is adding four esports teams: Hearthstone, Overwatch, Rocket League and Super Smash Brothers in a quest to appease students and entice potential recruits.

Interested in esports? Keep up with LRP’s Academic Esports Conference.

Chris Burt is LRP’s Editor for Esports and the Chair for the Academic Esports Conference and Expo, which is Oct. 19-21, 2020, at the Hilton Chicago.