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Traditional sports are sidelined these days; a result of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) era. But in their absence, the growing world of Esports could score big with fans.
“You won’t find [sports] on ESPN so much anymore,” laughed Toby Ebel, Esports coach at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas.
“But you can find it on sites like Twitch.tv and on YouTube and on Facebook,” he continued, highlighting an opportunity for fans of such sports as baseball and basketball to tap into something new with their freetime and embrace the world of Esports.
From Super Smash Brothers to Madden NFL to Fortnite, there’s an Esport for everyone. And the 30 joystick athletes on Baker’s Esports team haven’t missed a beat in a time of social distancing and Stay At Home orders, Ebel said.
“A number of them have started independent competitions just to keep their skills up, because we know this is going to come to an end someday and we’re going to get back into the classroom, back into the arena,” he said, noting members of one the program’s teams have all gone home to different states — but are still competing as a unit, as if they were side-by-side.
“They’re still involved in competitions. They played [twice this week.] So it’s been kind of fun to see that we can still do those things and we can still stream those things,” Ebel said. “For those sports junkies that are interested in something, they should be able to find it.”
Click here to read more about the Baker Esports program.
While the program might be seeing an uptick in support during a period of quarantine, it’s rise on college campuses isn’t completely new, Ebel explained, noting it’s become an increasingly reliable recruitment tool for Baker.
“We announced a program last March and I started recruiting right then, trying to get ready for the fall,” he recalled of the process which ultimately snagged the school five new enrollments.
“25 other kids that are on the program roster are all current students at Baker. And as soon as we announced [the program,] I started getting flooded with calls and emails saying, ‘Hey, I didn’t know Baker had an Esports team, I’d like to take part; I play this game.’”
Baker became the eighth school in the state to join the National Association of College Esports, alongside Kansas Wesleyan University, McPherson College, University of Saint Mary, Pratt Community College, Wichita State University, Central Christian College of Kansas and Ottawa University.
An unexpected twist in the program’s launch: students who’d already committed to playing other sports at Baker wanted in on Esports too, Ebel said.
“There’s a lot of crossover … I’ve got football players on the team. I’ve got soccer players. I’ve got track and cross country folks, wrestlers, golfers, tennis players — a wide range,” he said, noting the program is also a coed athletic opportunity.
“It reaches a broader, interesting subsection that I’m not so sure administrators knew was there,” Ebel theorized.
Baker University is set to host the inaugural Sunflower State Games Esports July 11 and July 18, welcoming the top players in Kansas to its Esports arena.
“Our Rocket League team, our top three players in that one, are all current students at Baker. Those are not recruited players and they’re good enough to compete at the national level. They were just sitting here at Baker.”
Less than a year into its tenure, Baker’s Esports program is no stranger to titles. So far, the Fortnite team has claimed first place in their conference — fourth in the nation — and gone up against Boise State, the premier Esports school in the U.S., Ebel said.
“I mean, you should just see these kids, they’re growing and beaming and having a great time because they know that they’re competing against schools like that and against schools that offer full ride scholarships.”
Such a streak of success will hopefully continue when the world is off pause, he added. Baker is set to host the inaugural Sunflower State Games Esports July 11 and July 18, welcoming the top players in Kansas to its Esports arena.
“They had never had Esports as a compensation opportunity before, but they had seen that other states had done it,” he said, using New York as an example. “We’re hopeful that we’ll see [30 teams] participate in the tournament and get to know Baker.”
Participants must be at least 14, which the school hopes will help increase its high school recruitment efforts, Ebel said.
“Whether it be a young adult who’s thinking about coming to school and seeing an opportunity for a varsity scholarship or a 30-year-old who just happens to be really good at Rocket League … they can see our arena, they can talk to us and they can spread the word,” he said.