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First varsity video game program in the state launched by Southern New Hampshire University

Union Leader Correspondent

August 08. 2018 7:27PM
Southern New Hampshire University esports member Sultan Akhter plays League of Legends, one of the four games that students will compete in at the varsity level starting this fall. (Travis R. Morin/Union Leader Correspondent)

HOOKSETT — Beginning this fall, on-campus students at Southern New Hampshire University will be able to try out for a position on the school’s new competitive eSports varsity program, the first program of its kind in the state.

ESports, short for electronic sports, are multiplayer video games that are played competitively by experienced or professional gamers.

The phenomenon has been sweeping colleges and universities across the country since 2014, when Robert Morris University in Illinois announced the creation of the first scholarship-sponsored team for the online multiplayer game League of Legends.

On Tuesday, SNHU announced that the university’s student-run eSports club would transition into an official varsity sports program this fall, complete with scholarships for students starting in the fall of 2019.

Tim Fowler, an SNHU employee and newly named director of eSports, said the effort began by connecting with Sultan Akhter, a fourth-year business administration student who was already overseeing the campus eSports club.

From there, Fowler and students worked to promote the idea and gain resources from sometimes skeptical forces within the administration.

“For the most part, people get a little bit confused about what eSports is — the familiarity isn’t necessarily there,” Fowler said. “There was a lot of evangelizing and talking about what eSports is, what benefits it will have for students, what fun it is and how much everybody loves to participate in it.”

SNHU’s program will be in partnership with the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), the national governing body that sets eligibility standards for university-level eSports.

According to Fowler, there are now upward of 90 collegiate eSports teams in the U.S.

Fowler, who formed his own video game club when he was an undergraduate at Randolph College in Virginia, said this year’s team will be made up of about 20 students who will compete in four games: League of Legends, Overwatch, Hearthstone and Fortnite.

He said the university plans to set up an esports arena on campus at some point in 2019.

Students of any grade level will be able to try out for the team this year, but in the future Fowler intends to begin recruiting players from high schools and other universities.

Akhter, who has been managing SNHU’s esports club for the past two years, said he got into competitive gaming because it allowed him to combine his love for video games and sports.

He made a strong case for the competitive value of eSports.

“If someone can put in hours upon hours of work, it can be considered a sport,” Akhter said. “It’s the same thing for chess. If video games are being played passionately enough, if you have kids spending hours upon hours learning the game, getting communication skills and getting teamwork skills from working with other people, I think that’s worthwhile.”

John Stillman, a fourth- year accounting student who has previously won cash prizes from eSports tournaments, said the team-oriented nature of the program shatters the stereotype that gamers are quiet loners.

“It’s unfortunate that people think we’re hermits that don’t talk to anyone, but I can’t say that I’ve played a game without other social interaction in well over five or six years,” Stillman said. “Communication, teamwork, that’s all built over years with my friends and the people that I play with. Sultan and I played together for a semester — I know what he’s going to do and he knows what I’m gonna do. It’s kind of ingrained in us.”

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