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NWACC adds esports to new athletic program

Many of NWACC's athletes game remotely, on computers.
Photo by ELLA DON on Unsplash
Many of NWACC's athletes game remotely, on computers.

It’s not a secret that college sports are a big deal in Northwest Arkansas.

But today, we’re taking a trip away from Razorback Stadium, up I-49, to Bentonville’s Northwest Arkansas Community College, where officials are building an athletic program from scratch. Their strategy: introduce accessible sports that don’t require a huge investment, like cross country and video games.

The college introduced its first sport, cross country, back in 2021, and the team is now nearing the end of its third season. Athletic director Brooke Brewer said the team's first two years proved fruitful. Runners secured the regional championship the last two seasons and will head to Mena to try again for a third this weekend.

Brewer said the success of the cross country teams, along with Northwest Arkansas’ appetite for collegiate sports, opened up the dialogue to add more sports to NWACC’s roster. The challenge is finding the right sport for the relatively new athletics program.

“In many ways, if you come into an athletic program, usually you have a lot, a lot in place already," Brewer said. "And you're jumping off from that point. And we're not doing that— we're jumping off from the ground. And so everything we're doing, we're starting from square one. So it's a challenge. It's the most fun challenge. I wouldn't want it any other way because it really gives me the ability to work with key players and put our stamp on this and make sure that we do this the way we want it to and that way we feel like it's going to best serve students and we're not having to move backwards and undo things to build forwards.”

Brewer herself is new to the NWACC campus. Before starting as athletic director in mid-August, she previously worked at Bentonville West High School, where she coached cheer and dance. She said her experience coaching high school sports gave her a helpful perspective on how to build the new program. She understands what trends are rising and what young athletes are looking for.

As NWACC officials debated how to kick off their athletics, Brewer said she wanted to focus on sports that everyone can play so that all students feel welcome to participate. E-sports felt like a natural choice.

“This is truly the most inclusive sport we could possibly offer," she said. "You know, because anyone can pick it up. And we've been trying to promote it to students as, you can be a very serious gamer. And be very, very serious and focused on this. And obviously, you will find great success with this team. But you can be a casual gamer, you know, you could be somebody who just said like, I like playing video games and I think they're fun.”

Competitive gaming, or esports, has become a wildly popular option for athletics at all levels of education. As of last year, over 80 high schools in Arkansas now have esports programs, according to the Arkansas Activities Association. What’s more, Scholarships.com said more than 30 colleges in the U.S. offer scholarship funding to persuade gamers to play for their institutions.

Outside of competition, video games’ general appeal has also exploded. A Pew research study from 2018 said that 97% of teenage boys and 83% of teenage girls play video games regularly.

And the teens aren’t alone in their gaming habits- the American Association of Retired People said that over 52 million people over 50 years old consider themselves gamers as well.

Brewer said the wide appeal of video games in tandem with their low barrier to entry, made esports an easy sell to the college. They were able to get the team off the ground earlier this semester.

"The terminology is a little different in the esports world," she said. 'So we play with the NJCAA-E, which is National Junior College Athletic Association- esports. So NJCAA-E is an offshoot of the NJCAA."

That’s governing body oversees the collegiate-level competition. They also utilize a different set of rules to style their league, unlike traditional athletics, because esports is so unique. At NWACC, the team is playing in tier 3, which is essentially a club league.

"So anyone can sign up. Anyone can be a part of it," Brewer said. "You can be an alumni, you can be a community member who's invested and wants to be on our teams, you can be an adult ed student, you can be a part-time student, anyone, I mean, truly, anyone can play and be a part of it. And so that's Yeah, it's really cool. And it's helping us build momentum for the program. Because we're able, it's so inclusive.” 

Brewer said she is hoping to have the team up to tier-2, which allows for selective team building and stricter official competition, by next semester. She also is working on creating a physical lab for athletes to meet and play in. Right now, athletes log on and game from their homes, which requires some collaborative thought.

“It depends on the game,”

That’s NWACC’s esports coach Carlos Merino. A math teacher by day, Merino volunteered to coach the team because of his own passion for video games.

“like some one player games the student can, the person could just get on there and log on and just do what they're used to doing. But other games like team team games like Overwatch, they try to set it they all have their own systems but they'll pretty much set up some sort of voice chat where they can get together and say okay, this is our plan for the game and this is your role and and then they communicate that way through voice chat.”

Merino said that students are taking the team very seriously despite their lack of shared physical space. The esports team is already at 49 players in total, so Merino splits gamers up into different groups based on which game they prefer, and some of those groups have already started counting wins. Right now, the games played include Super Smash Brothers, Rainbow Six Seige, Overwatch, Fortnite, Mario Kart, Madden, Fifa and Call of Duty.

New players arrive almost every day. Overwatch is a team-based first-person shooter, and Merino said they might need to make a second team to keep up with the interest.

"I get emails from students and from alumni and other people that are interested in this," Merino said. "And it's just, it's a lot of organizing, and there's lots of games. So the number one challenge right now is just trying to fill those teams for those games and trying to get all that information out there."

Skyler Casados is a second-year student at NWACC studying cybersecurity. He captains the school’s Madden team and co-captains the Rainbow Six Seige team. He said he wasn’t into competitive gaming when he was younger and didn’t find himself into esports until NWACC launched their program earlier this semester.

"It's just about dabbling yourself and to get a little experience with all these people," Casados said. "Because I'm not gonna lie, these people that you come into play against, they're actually really good. actually really good. They have a lot of talent."

He said he’s noticed how much potential for growth esports has due to video games’ rising popularity. Not only are people playing more games, but they’re playing games at a competitive level, even if they're not in an officially organized esports league.

Casados said the skill of his opponents has been the biggest challenge to overcome.

"Honestly, I was a kid type of kid and be like, 'Oh, I'm just gonna play sports like esports isn't really like that big of a gig,'" he said. "And it's not like that great. And then I was like, well, that's actually fun. I'm like, I got into it. And I was like, Okay— We can do something with this."

He said that competitive gaming reveals opportunities for students to play at a professional level and possibly make careers out of following their passion.

There’s a lot of profit to be made in professional gaming. Professional Fortnite player Kyle Geisdorf has made $3.6 million in prize money from his tournament wins. Casados, of course, is just waiting for the call.

"I say, if it happens, it happens," he said. "I honestly, I love the thing. I'm like if somebody wants it, but if I was to go pro, I would do it."

Brewer said she is working on a five-year study to determine which sports should be added to NWACC’s roster and what’s the best direction to take the athletic program as a whole. She said her office will work with an outside consultant to consider factors like startup and reoccurring costs and the current climate of high school and collegiate sports.

“Looking at high schools, and seeing how they fit in and then looking at our region and region to and then looking at, then we have some really strong neighboring regions of NJCAA, too," Brewer said. "So, looking into those regions as well. And then looking at the landscape of how does this fit in with four-year colleges and universities and kind of looking at that through the lens of, could we be a feeder for programs? Is there is there room for that space? Or do we want to take the opposite approach in some sports, if it's a sport that's not offered at a regional four-year college or university, we can become the opportunity for students in that space by offering that program."

NWACC is also currently looking for a sponsor for the team's physical lab. Video game seller Game X Change has donated six gaming computers for the team to use once the college has completed the space.

The NWACC Eagles cross-country team will race at the NJCAA Region One championship this weekend, and the esports team begins a Madden tournament tomorrow afternoon.

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Jack Travis is a reporter for <i>Ozarks at Large</i>.<br/>
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