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University of Jamestown paving the way for esports in ND

University of Jamestown esports coach Dillon Kifer.

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- Several universities in the Midwest region are planning to implement a collegiate Esports team this fall, including Bismarck State College and Dickinson State University, following in the path University of Jamestown paved nearly three years prior, according to Chris Hoke, technical director of esports at UJ.

Esports is a competitive sport consisting of multiplayer video games being played across several different platforms.

UJ's esports team will enter its third season this upcoming year, under the direction of new head coach Dillon Kifer, who earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education in 2017 followed by a Master of Art in Leadership degree, both from UJ.

"Video games will be, if they aren't already, just as big as professional sports," Kifer said.

Statistically speaking, Kifer's statement isn't wrong. According to CNBC, in November 2018, the "League of Legends" World Championship final in South Korea drew an estimated 100 million unique viewers across the world on the internet. The 2018 Super Bowl had an estimated 98 million viewers.

UJ was one of the first colleges to introduce an esports team on campus, and quickly, the sport has spread across the country. The National Association of Collegiate esports, the governing body for all university teams, has around 125 teams nationally as of Feb. 2019, according to ESPN.

"Private universities were quicker to jump on it ... it was easier for them to do it," Hoke said. "Public colleges are a bit slower because there's more hoops to jump through."

An advantage universities see in esports is the low cost for the development of a program.

"Think about it ... you could have no travel cost if you didn't want any," Hoke said. "It's all online. We play different schools in California, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and South Carolina."

One obstacle Hoke has faced since the birth of the program is the recruitment of potential players, but the director said times are changing and that is quickly shifting across the state.

According to Hoke, 14 high schools in North Dakota have elected to participate in esports this year, making recruiting a more local possibility.

"There wasn't a lot of high schools to recruit from before," Hoke said. "We mostly used word-of-mouth from current players or recruiting websites online."

A big incentive for prospects to commit to UJ is the opportunity to earn scholarships of up to $2500. Hoke said the average athlete on the team is awarded $2000 a year.

"We're trying to push people to graduate college, esports is a way to get people to want to," Kifer said. "Come play video games competitively while going to school."

Kifer and Hoke both understand the stereotype behind playing video games, especially at a competitive level. That doesn't stop them.

"The stigma comes from thinking we're lazy guys just playing video games in our parent's basement," Kifer said.

"I used to joke with recruits ... Get out of your mom's basement and come play in the library's basement," Hoke said. The esports facility, with about 25 computers equipped with gaming chairs and headsets, is located directly below UJ's library.

A vastly overlooked portion of the competitive gaming industry is the camaraderie, according to Hoke.

"There's a lot of mental and strategic things that teams need to go through," Hoke said. "These are analytical games that specialized teams practice together to succeed in."

Kifer also said companionship is essential and is something he plans on building on as the new head coach.

"I'm not going to force everybody to be best friends, I wouldn't expect that," Kifer said. "But team-bonding is important."

As for the success of UJ's esports program thus far, Hoke credits the program for getting people out of their comfort zone and into a new generation of collegiate sports.

"I think the majority of our team would not be at this school if it wasn't for esports," Hoke said.

UJ's esports team streams the majority of their games online through Twitch, a live-streaming video game platform owned by Amazon.

The college's esports season will begin in early October.