K-12 and higher education are scrambling to keep up with student demand for the newest model of learning: esports. Since its launch at this college, organized esports has woven itself into research, course offerings, and recruitment tours.
Experts in K12 and Hi Ed explain why it’s happening, how to get started and how it is benefiting students of all ages. Read this article to learn key observations on why esports is gaining speed, how teachers and faculty can participate, and what’s needed to launch an effective esports program.
When the New York Institute of Technology took a gamer’s advice to organize esports play for its students, little did the institution expect that seed to grow into groundbreaking medical research, a potential area for the development of a new minor, and a recruitment lure for new students. In this interview Dan Vélez, NYIT’s director of Athletics and Recreation, and Jerry Balentine, dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, explain what medical issues esports players face as athletes, how esports compares to other athletic endeavors, and what the future looks like for students who immerse themselves in the world of collegiate online gaming.
Jerry, what kinds of medical concerns do esports players specifically face?
Jerry Balentine: I would in general say you’re looking at a very young population. If you had asked me at that age, does anything hurt you, I would always have said no. And we find the same thing with esports athletes. They’re young, they’re resilient. But when we observe them, either by videotaping them or sitting in the room with them as they play, we realize what their problems are. In general, you can divide it into a few areas: Visual issues and muscular-skeletal effects. The esports competitor watches the screen four, six, eight, 10 hours a day, and that obviously affects. And the shoulders are tight or the wrist is being moved too much. There are stories of some of these esports professionals ending their careers relatively young because they cannot take the pain anymore.
But then we also look at how we can help them improve. So, how can we point out to them that by sitting in the chair for two, three hours straight, their spines are starting to curve, their head is dropping and therefore their performance will be suffering?
We do a whole bunch of programs, including taking athletes while they’re playing the game and forcing them to take a break and go on a treadmill for a couple of minutes. We’re working with them on how they eat and how nutrition plays into this.
Our sports medicine medical team works a lot with long-distance athletes. We take the experience we have with that and translate it into this new activity and look at how we can improve the performance and avoid injuries.
Talk about that research you’re doing.
We publish a good amount of research. Part of it is trying to figure out where esports fits in. When you look at an esports player, you don’t really think of them as an athlete upfront. Are they athletes or not? Should they be competing in the Olympics, for example, or should they not? Some of the research is position papers on how to evaluate this. Some of our other papers are about how to put together an esports medical team to treat those athletes. We’re looking very specifically at some video capture of the athletes’ performance and publishing papers on changing the spine and so forth.
We’re currently working on a very interesting project where we take saliva samples and evaluate players’ Melatonin levels, evaluate some of the cortisol levels in their blood, to see if this constant looking at a screen fools their body into screwing up the day-night cycles. We’re finding early results that their bodies are somewhat confused [about whether] they’re really asleep or awake.
We have a lot of experience with concussions and brain-related injuries. And we’re trying to relate that to what happens to the brain when you get this massive amount of data through your eyeballs sent up to the brain all the time.
OK, Dan, you’re an athletic director and you have dealt with traditional intramural sports like lacrosse, basketball, soccer, volleyball, baseball. But esports?
Dan Vélez: It’s part of our sports portfolio. I always tell people, yeah, they’re athletes. They practice, they put a lot of time and effort in, the same way that our lacrosse team goes out every single day for two, two, and a half hours’ worth of practice. [Our team], the CyBears, are doing the same thing. They’re trying to perfect a very specific skill set as every other athlete does. They’re part of our family. We treat them the same way. They get the Under Armour gear that our regular student-athletes get. We celebrate them with weekly awards the same as our traditional athletes, and we celebrate their academic accomplishments too.
How does esports differ from what you’re doing in those other sports?
Dan Vélez: The sedentary piece. And this is where Jerry and his folks really come into play. Traditional athletes are active; they’re up and down a field; they’re up and down a court; they’re in the weight room. There’s that physical component that we know and understand. We know how to create the best lacrosse player, the best basketball player, from a medical standpoint, when it comes to nutrition when it comes to physical exercise. What we’re recognizing is that our sedentary athletes, the CyBears, need some of that as well. And as Jerry touched on, we need to have them walk on a treadmill after they’ve been playing for so long, have them go through stretches. We’re realizing that there’s a lot of crossovers. We have to tweak it so that it works with what their bodies are going through.
The more we talk to them about becoming the best player possible, that’s where they buy-in. They are uber-competitive. They want to win. And whether that’s because they have aspirations to be a professional or because they want to become known in the business of esports, they’re buying in.
How did esports become such a big deal for NYIT?
Dan Vélez: We had a gaming club, and a young man who’s now our director of esports approached the athletic department and said they wanted a more competitive environment to participate in. They wanted more structure — as crazy as that sounds for an 18- to 22-year-old — being a team, of being in leagues and being able to compete for something, rather than getting together now and again with their friends to play. They recognized there was something very special there, and they were prepared to be able to dive into that.
Jerry Balentine: From my standpoint, it was intellectual curiosity that you find in higher education. I have an incredibly talented faculty. So, when Dan started talking about esports. I started looking into it a little bit. I run with another faculty member here who is an exercise physiologist, Dr. Joanne Donoghue, and I said to her, “Do you think these guys are athletes?” And she said, “No.” I said, “Well, prove it to me.” And the next thing I knew, she was researching and meeting them and starting to write articles and publish. And she goes, “This is really interesting. They might be.”
We had found this really interesting group of people who are very competitive but making all of these — what we would consider — mistakes. Imagine the following. You have a marathon runner. What does the week before the marathon look like? They certainly don’t run a marathon the day before. But we found these esports athletes practicing eight hours before the game. Well, is that the right way to do it? Maybe it is in esports, maybe it is not.
This curiosity about working with them got us very excited about the field. And then the more we read about it, the more we realized there was this vacuum where medical fields were not paying attention to it. That immediately got us more involved. The school of health profession has a couple of physical therapists and occupational therapists. We all had this excitement about helping a group of athletes, a group of students, in a field that was really evolving.
Let’s talk about the learning related to esports. What future is there for students in esports?
Jerry Balentine: There are multiple areas. We were at the Barclays Center [in Brooklyn] for an event, and it was sold out, with people watching a big screen. We need experts who understand how these events are planned and put together. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry out there that nobody over 25 knows much about except if they have invested in it. We need people who can be the business people for that.
Dan Vélez: What I tell people is to get beyond the video games. We already have a customized bachelor’s degree tailed for students. That was the first step we took. We housed it in our school of Interdisciplinary Studies. because that allowed us the most flexibility. Now, step two is to take a truly cross-disciplinary approach to it and set up almost a minor within this and say, “We’re going to leave 18 credits free for you to focus on something.”
So, one of the things that I’m focusing on with our schools of Management and Health Professions is creating academic tracks that are crossdisciplinary. Take an accounting degree, for example. You could have a future as a CPA, but let’s take accounting philosophies to the business of esports. Let’s take traditional tracks and infuse them with the business of esports. We’ve got a wonderful school of Architecture. Somebody’s got to build these venues that are specific to esports. How do we take the knowledge that we have in our school of Architecture and how do we apply everything we’ve learned over the years to esports venues?
Or in the health professions. We know how to train a soccer player. Let’s also train these esports athletes to be at their highest level. There’s a vacuum there. There’s a lot of interest in young people who want to be in this industry, but they may be missing some of the educational components, and that’s where we come into play.
You’ve talked about the venues. The Institute recently opened up its own esports center, which sounds like a big-budget item.
Dan Vélez: We were able to repurpose space in our library that was underutilized, and it’s almost our Guinea pig. We’ve got plans for new buildings on campus, and within one of those new buildings, we’re looking at possibly 1,500 to 2,000 square feet dedicated to esports only. One of the beautiful things about it is, it’s set up where a couple of hours a day it’s dedicated only to the CyBears for their practices, but it’s also open every day for our regular students. We’ve got some phenomenal Alienware machines in there. I always laugh because the students come in and they’re like, “Whoa, this is so much better than what I have at home. The graphics are so much clearer. Everything works so much faster. The response time of what I’m seeing to the keystrokes is almost instantaneous.”
So, show me the money. How does esports pay off for the school?
Dan Vélez: Look. The academics of an institution are going to sell themselves. But students always want to know, “Well, what is there for me to do?” What we’ve recognized is that, yeah, intramural sports, they’re still big. Rec facilities, they’re still big. But in today’s digital age, students want and look for different things. This is one of those different things that, if we do it really well, will be a game-changer for us, for who we are as a university.
Source: Dell Technologies and Intel