WINCHESTER — The fledgling esports team at Shenandoah University knows some people don’t take their pursuit seriously.

At least not yet.

“The stigma around it, understandably so, is just of kids in a basement,” said 21-year-old SU senior Kyle Apgar, who’s a member of the university’s competitive video game team.

But that’s how interest in competitive gaming starts.

Members of SU’s esports team — there are 21 of them — say they were first attracted to video games when they were kids as a way to have fun. Now, they compete in video game tournaments.

“Esports is a $1 billion industry,” Joey Gawrysiak, SU’s director of sport management and esports, said about competitive gaming. When he was a student at the University of Georgia, he competed in the popular first-person shooter game Halo with “a box of energy drinks” as the grand prize.

Fast forward to today. Many tournaments are now conducted by major league sports interests and offer prizes up to $25 million.

“It’s only continuing to grow,” Gawrysiak said about the esports industry.

In the fall, SU will launch an esports major, which is essentially sports management tailored to esports.

A practical pursuit

Esports teams are expanding at the college level, with numerous public, private and Ivy League institutions competing in emerging conferences.

At the professional level, esports is garnering investment interests from popular sports franchises like the Chicago Bulls and the Houston Rockets. Celebrity gamers on YouTube and the online video platforming service Twitch.tv reportedly rake in vast sums of money.

But none of SU’s gamers envision themselves becoming celebrities or tournament champions. That’s not the career path an esports major can expect, they said.

Not to worry, though. A simple internet search reveals employers who are looking to hire esports event managers, journalists, market strategists, coaches and even apparel designers.

Sean Kelley, 19, a freshman from New Jersey, came to SU with the intention of majoring in business and cybersecurity. He also is on the soccer team.

“Within a week of coming here I heard about this,” Kelley about the esports major while watching a video game on one of the screens in the Shenandoah Center for Immersive Learning on SU’s main campus in Winchester. He now plans to major in business and pair it with esports. “I want to be able to pair the video game world with business.”

This fall, Kelley will enroll in SU’s esports major, which will offer concentrations in management, media and communications. The university is in the process of hiring faculty for the program, and several classes are already underway. The university also will offer majors in virtual reality, with concentrations in creative audio/visual effects, theatrics and technological programming.

“It’s not just about sitting around and playing video games,” said Anne Marchant, director of the university’s division of applied technology. “It’s the whole sport management field.”

At SU, the esports team is an extracurricular activity like football and baseball, Gawrysiak said, but the esports major will be a serious academic pursuit.

Students who come to the university to major in esports will get “practical experience” working in the video game industry, which offers high-paying jobs, he said. Players, developers, marketers and managers can all earn six-figure salaries. Just like the sports management major, which covers management, event planning and legal aspects of traditional sports, an esports major will do the same, but for the video gaming industry.

Gawrysiak said he has been consulting with major video game developers, such as Blizzard Entertainment in California and Rockstar Games in Massachusetts, to learn what employers are looking for when hiring — those companies have generally employed people without a formal education in video games. “I want students to meet professionals in the industry... they are going to get a lot of practical things on their resumé, because that’s what’s going to get them a job.”

The virtual reality majors diverge from video games, Marchant said. The private and public sectors are increasingly turning to VR for everything from training nurses and police to watching movies.

“With a $200 headset, you can have the same experience you would have with a headset,” Marchant said. “We want to make Winchester a hub for VR.”

‘Plus, it’s just fun’

SU has been hosting students from area high schools at the Shenandoah Center for Immersive Learning on Friday nights, when the esports team typically meets for practice.

Clayton Schick, a 14-year-old freshman at James Wood High School in Frederick County, played Rocket League on a recent evening — a game he described as “like soccer but with cars.”

Clayton aspires to be a biotech engineer, and he’s taught himself three computer coding languages by accessing free tutorial programs on the internet.

How does all this relate to esports?

“It doesn’t at all,” he said. “I just love playing video games.”

That also true for Cameron Baker, 17, who’s in his senior year at James Wood.

“I don’t know what I’m doing yet,” he said about his plans after high school as he played Fortnite. He’s been playing video games just about his whole life and posts videos of his accomplishments to accounts on YouTube and Twitch. “I might do it on the side, make some extra money,” he said about esports.

Gawrysiak said student nights give prospective students the information they need to make informed decisions about whether they want to invest in an esports education. If they want to explore the field further, his job is to take them “from interest to profession,” he said.

Shenandoah is one of the first schools in the country to offer a comprehensive esports program.

Morgan Keeler, a 22-year-old senior from Aldie, said most of the university’s esports team members “came for the fun” but decided to take additional coursework once they learned more about professional opportunities. “At this point, it’s less for fun and more for experience. It’s something we care about.”

Pursuing an esports career path is hard work and rightfully so, Gawrysiak said. But students who work hard and excel academically will have lucrative job prospects in the field.

“Plus it’s just fun,” he said. “I love video games.”

Anyone interested in attending a game night at SU can email jgawrysi@su.edu.

— Contact Onofrio Castiglia at ocastiglia@winchesterstar.com

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