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Esports

Equipping Collegiate Esports Spaces

Whether using existing systems or outfitting new purpose-built venues, schools see esports as a way to attract students and augment education.

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By some estimates, the global esports market exceeded $1 billion last year, up more than 25 percent from the year before, and the global audience for esports reached nearly half a billion people. More than 200 colleges and universities belong to the National Association of Collegiate Esports. Among them, they offer more than $16 million a year in esports scholarships. This spring, Ohio's University of Akron, which runs collegiate varsity teams for video games such as League of Legends, Overwatch and Rainbow Six Siege, will offer its first "Introduction to Esports" three-credit course.

Everywhere you look, especially on college campuses, esports is a fast-growing phenomenon. And although playing esports can be accomplished on PCs and game consoles, more colleges are investing in facilities with large-scale audio and video (AV) systems, where varsity gamers and fans can be immersed in the action. And the AV technology is as integral to the sport as sporting equipment is to basketball or football.

"Big screens and sound systems were part of what made football stadiums important for student recruitment for years," said Tiffin University Athletic Director Lonny Allen. "Esports is going to want the same things for its arenas in the future."

Technology to Establish an Esports Program

Many collegiate esports programs are starting out with existing AV technology. But their directors and administrators are well aware of trending esports venues, both collegiate and commercial, and it's influencing the way they see esports' role on campus.

The Cazenovia College Wildcats train and play in a converted campus space, where the school's maintenance staff knocked down walls to create a gaming lab and the IT department ran cabling for a network. Cazenovia Director of Athletics and Recreation Pete Way said keeping initial costs down was key, but now that school administrators appreciate esports as a recruiting tool, momentum is building.

"The amount of buy-in we got early was amazing," said Way. "And as the president's office sees the return on investment, it'll make the case for new equipment, like video walls."

At Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), the school's esports program started with a $75,000 budget and began play in an existing 1,000-square-foot space. Brian Anweiler, director of college-wide student life at NOVA, gathered AV equipment from other parts of the school, including a 60-inch LED screen for coaching and play review. Some of the funds went toward new Corsair computers and Razer gaming mice. The NOVA Nighthawks esports team also shares a new TriCaster Mini advanced streaming system with the college's broadcasting department to live-stream games.

"This came together pretty quickly, and we were learning as we went," Anweiler said. The school hired an AV integrator, Inter Technologies, to install the components.

Other programs are investing in new facilities and integrated technology to attract gamer students and esports fans. At Tiffin University, the school's esports team has its own purpose-built 4,000-square-foot home, where it's spent about $3,000 per gaming station for computers, monitors and headsets, "We've had schools come see what we're doing, but we're also competing with those schools now for recruits," Allen said.

Caldwell University, which just launched degree programs in esports management, built a new arena in one of its main buildings, Werner Hall. It includes 12 gaming stations with high-performance LG monitors, and a pair of 43-inch 4K LG commercial displays for taking in the competition. The hallways around the arena now include four 55-inch LG 4K digital signage screens for showing to students live matches, practices and recordings of past tournaments.

"Esports is just as competitive as physical sports, and in an esports arena, fast responses and smooth graphics really matter," said Anthony Yang, Caldwell University's executive director of IT operations and digital communications.

And the University of Akron, which launched its esports program in fall 2018, has three esports facilities on campus: One for varsity teams with 24 PCs and five game consoles, another for recreational teams with 24 PCs and 10 consoles, and a 1,222-square-foot showcase venue at the school's InfoCision Stadium, with a broadcast studio and videowall so spectators can watch the competition. Technology company Audio-Technica was an early sponsor of the Akron Zips, supplying headsets for players and microphone systems for commentators, in addition to roughly $5,000 in scholarships for varsity players and audio engineers.

Setting a Collegiate Esports Standard

Perhaps the premier collegiate esports facility belongs to Full Sail University. Dubbed the Fortress, the $6 million, 11,200-square-foot gaming arena opened last year with seating for up to 500. From the start, Full Sail's Fortress was designed to serve two purposes: esports and higher education.

"What sets this apart from the esports venues being built on campuses and commercial esports arenas is that the Fortress is designed to accommodate spectators and to act as an educational classroom facility," explained Bennett Newsome, Full Sail's esports strategist. "We can support tournaments as well as any other sports arena; we designed it so there's not a bad seat in the house. But it's also a complete classroom environment."

On game days, fans watch teams compete at long tables topped with 27-inch MSI gaming monitors. Or they can follow the action on a 36-by-11.5-foot Absen LED videowall, the largest of several displays in the Fortress. The venue also includes an eye-catching circular LED display, 24 feet in circumference, hung like a halo above the competition dais.

And when the gaming picks up, so does the sound. Full Sail specified two concert-grade L-Acoustics sound systems for the Fortress, one flanking the main LED videowall and another mounted on the LED video halo. This configuration allows the venue to serve multiple purposes, supporting "in-the-round" productions or presentation-style events and performances, with the principle speaker or performer at one end of the space.

During scheduled classes and labs, the venue's technology was designed so faculty could enhance their lessons via the Fortress's AV systems.

"We worked hard to make the space accessible to educators, and easy for them to use," said Vince Lepore, director of event technical operations at Full Sail. For example, the venue's Crestron control system has a pre-programmed "keynote" setting that lets educators wirelessly display presentations and other media on the LED videowall using Crestron's AirMedia technology. The room also includes four channels of wireless microphone audio that are auto-mixed using a QSC Q-SYS core processor.

Full Sail hired a commercial AV systems integrator, Pro Sound & Video, to design, build and install the venue's systems. Normally, the media-savvy university would handle the technology itself, but, according to Lepore, because Full Sail was looking to go from groundbreaking to grand opening in less than a year, it needed a specialist.

Making a Campuswide Connection

The technology that underpins Full Sail's Fortress extends beyond its walls. While games played there can be streamed to viewers anywhere in the world, other activities held in the Fortress can also be shared across a fiber-optic network with two other teaching/production facilities on campus. The university's Audio Temple is a full-featured recording studio used by both students and recording professionals, while Full Sail Live is a production venue designed to teach students live-event and touring-production skills and has hosted broadcast events like the WWE's NXT professional wrestling series.

Given the rapid pace of change in the video game industry, future-proofing the Fortress' network infrastructure was critical. "We've made a significant investment in this venue," Lepore noted, "and the fiber network will let systems be updated more easily and give it a lot of ways to grow."

The three facilities are further connected over fiber to Full Sail's data center, which stores content created in and for the various venues, including Fortress gaming events. "We're able to push and pull content to and from the data center from all of the venues over the network, which really multiplies the capabilities of each," Lepore said.

Investing in AV

In a short time, collegiate esports have become widespread. It was just 2014 when the first-known esports program took wing at Robert Morris University. Today, schools are rapidly assessing what they need to support such programs and engage new students. Investments in audiovisual technology are foundational, allowing colleges to "adapt to a number of venues and configurations," according to Michael Fay, Esports Center director at Rutgers University and formerly the University of Akron's first Esports director.

Esports offers a great example of the investment being made in integrated performance/entertainment solutions within venues of various kinds, including stadiums and arenas. According to AVIXA's Industry Outlook and Trends Analysis (IOTA), the broader venue and event industry represents $37 billion in revenue opportunity for AV products and services across the globe in 2020. This makes it the third largest market opportunity, behind traditional corporate office spaces and broadcast/entertainment — though it is expected to grow faster than both through 2024. The growth in esports is just one application driving the growth of technology integration in these spaces, corresponding to potential project work for our thriving industry.

Technology writer Dan Daley contributed to this article.

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