Forget viral -- GCU Esports goes social

The newly expanded Esports Arena doesn't just have something for the PC gamers, but console gamers, too. The arena is open for free play during Welcome Week.

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Mathew McGraw

Students at the renovated Esports Arena on Wednesday take their place at some of the more than 70 high-end PCs.

David Royce Jr. didn’t know exactly which college he wanted to attend. But on a Discover GCU trip, the League of Legends gamer knew exactly what he wanted to see: the University’s Esports Arena.

Enveloped by the warm glow of red lights from the clear-case computer towers and calmed by the gentle purring of the gaming PCs, Royce felt everything fall into place.

“To be completely honest, this is why I chose GCU. It was icing on the cake,” said Royce, a freshman cybersecurity major from California who found his way back on Wednesday to the newly expanded arena.

A summertime facelift doubled the facility's size from 1,700 square feet to a little more than 3,200 square feet, pumped up its capacity from 36 high-end gaming PCs to more than 70, and enlarged its viewing lounge, console gaming area and varsity training section. It's an expansion students can see for themselves at the arena, which is open for free play through Sunday during Welcome Week on the second floor of the Technology Building.

The club is putting a lot of focus this year on the social appeal of gaming and the arena as a place to hang out and make friends.

In the midst of the melee that’s Welcome Week -- from the electricity of Move-In day to the hustle-and-bustle of orientation to the emotional wreckage of saying goodbye to family -- Royce said being a freshman away from home for the first time can be daunting.

“When you’re an incoming freshman, you’re kind of lost, in a sense. Things can overwhelm you,” he said, but being among like-minded gamers in the Esports Arena already has helped him find a place socially.

Just minutes after stepping into the space and moving past a wall of nanoleaf light panels and an expanse of illuminated computers, Royce said, “I turned around, and people just hit me up for a conversation. I made friends -- shook hands. It was kind of cool to meet people.”

That kind of social experience is what the Esports Club is banking on.

Although the club has made a name for itself in the competition world, with its varsity Overwatch team making it to the quarterfinals of the ESPN Collegiate Esports Championship in May, it very much wants to embrace the social side of gaming. It also wants the arena to become THE social hangout place.

Esports Coordinator Albert Lee said there's a huge demographic of people the club hasn't reached out to yet. Student leaders plan to do just that this academic year.

“It’s more than just gaming,” said Esports Coordinator Albert Lee, who describes the gaming and esports world as “a very Wild West, new environment.” “It’s a place where you meet people with similar hobbies to hang out with, so that’s kind of the new kind of environment we’re trying to set up with this expansion.

“Ever since people started playing Nintendo games like two decades ago, I’d say one-third of teenagers played video games somewhat actively. Now it’s like even half, because people play on their phones. So there’s this HUGE demographic of people we haven’t reached out to yet. This is that initiative to get them (students) out of their rooms to hang out socially. They can go to the new Canyon Activity Center to play ball, but maybe on another day, they might want to take a break and play video games.”

Senior finance major Conner Kleinsasser (left)  is this year's Esports Club president.

Senior finance major and Esports Club president Conner Kleinsasser was searching for a place to fit in when he first arrived on campus as a freshman. He played football in high school but said he wasn't good enough to play college football.

That’s when one of his friends in his biology class said, “Hey, you play League of Legends,” and introduced him to other gamers on campus. Gaming, at first, was a replacement for that competitive drive that football fulfilled. But it became more than that.

"It was a great way for me to do something I love, but in a healthier way, because obviously, esports isn't always great for you if you're just sitting in your room all the time," he said. "The club's a great spot for people to come, be social, meet friends and hang out. We'll go get dinner after practice and just have a good time outside of the game."

Senior computer science major Cameron Sullivan, the head gamer for the campus' Smash Bros. community, said he and his fellow Smash Bros. adherents find themselves in the Esports Arena several days a week for three to four hours a day.

But it’s not all they do.

The Esports Club is the second biggest club on campus, after the Havocs.

“All of my friends I met through Smash Bros.,” he said during a Wednesday visit to the arena. “But we tend to hang out a lot, even outside of playing Smash."

As Esports Club president, Kleinsasser has a big job ahead of him. The club has grown from 50 or so members last year to more than 500 registered members. It is now the second largest club on campus behind the Havocs.

It also is the first year the club has elected its student leaders, who were chosen by administration in the past. 

“It’s very much a student-driven experience,” said Lee, who said he’s there to support the students in what they do but, ultimately, they’re the ones pointing the organization in the direction they want it to go.

And Kleinsasser has a solid direction in mind.

While continuing to support and develop its competitive teams, the club is upping its game as far as its social reach on campus, beginning with an informational meeting at 7 p.m. Aug. 29 in Room 131 of the Technology Building.

The arena has doubled in size, to 3,200 square feet.

One of the things Kleinsasser is working on is the club’s Twitch stream -- Twitch is a live video streaming platform -- so the GCU community can watch its gamers in action.

The club also hosts a Discord server. It's how Royce communicated with a few GCU gamers before actually meeting them in person. The digital distribution platform allows text, image, video and audio communication between users in a chat channel.

Then there are the events, and the Esports Club is planning to ramp up its slate of social events, which it will announce via Discord and other social media. The plan is to organize two events a month.

"Like we have a really big Halloween event where we we do a costume party,” Kleinsasser said.

“They’ll be very much open to all GCU students and every single one, virtually all of them, will be free,” Lee said. “A lot of them will be community-led by that student leadership, whether it’s general meetings or in-house tournaments where people can play their favorite games together for fun. ‘Hey! It’s game night.’ Come in. We’ll have snacks. We’ll have special giveaway prizes from some of our sponsors. It will be more of a community feel.”

Add to that invites to watch parties in the expanded viewing lounge. It’s not unusual, Lee said, to see 70 people show up at 1 a.m. to watch a tournament streamed, from, say Germany. Club members will be in the arena for six hours watching a tournament.

A student on Wednesday checks in for some gaming.

Or students can just drop in to play a game and talk to other students, no invite necessary.

"This is going to be the first year where we're really focusing on making a community that isn't just good at playing the games," Kleinsasser said. "We want this to be a place now where you can come in, even if you've never played a game before, or you're not very good or you're really good, you can come in. The best players can help the bad players and kind of just help everybody have a great time, because for a lot of players, you're not trying to be the best, you're not trying to be a pro. For a lot of people, it's just something to do -- it's a lot of fun."

Ryan Schoon, a freshman biomedical engineering major, stopped in for just that reason -- to have fun.

Lee said he expects esports to continue its growth in popularity on campus.

He remembers walking into the Esports Arena during his Discover GCU trip and was impressed to see the University embracing the gaming community as much as it has.

“I was like, ‘Wow!’ … GCU is really trying to go out of their way to provide opportunities for people to pursue their passion and to give people the best experience.”

Reach GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: Esports Arena 2.0 do debut during Welcome Week

AZ Family: GCU's esports team competing against top schools in nation

GCU Today: GCU's Overwatch team eyes top spot at ESPN event

GCU Today: GCU's 1st esports tournament is smashing success GOATS meta gives underdog Grand Canyon University an edge at CEC


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