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University of Akron to Cut 80 Degree Programs, Shift Focus to eSports

3 Oct, 2018

By: Michael Popke
Not Surprisingly, it is a Controversial Move - But Could Establish Akron as an eSports Center

You read that headline correctly. The University of Akron, in a move that campus officials claim will free up about $6 million, will over the next few yearsphase out 80 degree programs — about 20 percent of its offerings. The eliminations include 10 Ph.D. programs, 33 master’s programs, 20 bachelor’s programs, and 17 associate-degree programs with either low enrollment or that are offered at other similar institutions, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The recent announcement also included details of plans to open three eSports facilities on campus to accommodate varsity, club and recreational gamers. And that could mean more openings for eSports competitions at the collegiate level to make their way to Akron.

“UA’s Zips Esports program will open three dedicated gaming facilities on Friday, Oct. 5, to accommodate the new varsity, club and recreational eSports offerings,” the university said in a news release. “With more than 5,200 combined square feet, it’s the largest amount of dedicated eSports space of any university in the world to date. The facilities will be outfitted with more than 90 state-of-the-art gaming PCs and 30 next-generation consoles.”

Here is a breakdown of each space, according to the news release:

  • UA’s five inaugural varsity eSports teams (Overwatch, League of Legends, Hearthstone, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Rocket League) will compete in a new 1,222-square-foot gaming arena located on the first floor of InfoCision Stadium-Summa Field. There, spectators will be able to watch matches live on a hyper wall display. The facility also will house a studio for broadcasting competitions and events.

  • A 2,646-square-foot eSports center located on the first floor of the Jean Hower Taber Student Union will be home to more than 300 students representing 10 eSports club teams. The facility will feature a viewing lounge where live eSports broadcasts will be aired throughout the day, and an exclusive training space for varsity teams. Free devices will also be available for recreational use by students who are not members of a club or varsity team.

  • The Drs. Gary B. and Pamela S. Williams Honors College will house a 1,338-square-foot recreational gaming café on the first floor that will be available for all students in good academic standing to access for free. University employees, alumni and community members who are gamers and want to access the café will be required to purchase passes.

“The university will be pumping around $1 million into its eSports program, with the majority of that money being used to fund three state-of-the-art gaming spaces, and the rest to cover the various costs raised by the teams,” reports dbltap.com, a news website for eSports fans.

“These facilities will help eliminate any financial barrier to participating in eSports competitions for UA students, keep them from having to play alone in their residence halls and allow them to pursue mastery in gaming, just like any other extracurricular pursuit here on campus,” said Michael Fay Jr., director/head coach of the university’s eSports programs.

It should be noted that Akron is not alone in its pursuit of eSports. Last year, the University of Utah became the first Power 5 Conference school to field a varsity eSports team, and Big Ten university teams compete in televised eSports leagues.

In fact, according to technology news and reviews website Engadget.com, more than 60 colleges and universities have eSports programs recognized by the National Association of Collegiate Esports, which was established in 2016. Several others offer unofficial programs, the site adds.

Two other signs that eSports continues to infiltrate the traditional sports landscape: The UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, plans to launch a European eSports tournament and professional gamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins recently became the first eSports player featured on the cover of ESPN The Magazine.

Not everyone agrees with the university’s move, though — including disgruntled alums such as comedian Rhea Butcher, who complained on Twitter that she’s still paying off student loans she incurred while attending Akron.

“Hope for every kid living in their parents’ basements, playing World of Warcraft all night long!” wrote Steven Hayward, senior resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in an article for the political website Power Line headlined “More Scenes from the College Apocalypse.” “Look, I respect the game designers at places like Electronic Arts in Silicon Valley (I know a couple), and can see how this is somewhat of a practical subject, but this is ridiculous for a place that wants to be taken seriously as a university.”

A group of teachers from the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors also weighed in, sending a letter to the University of Akron’s Board of Trustees, sharply criticizing the decision to cut academic degrees while expanding eSports, according to WOIO, Cleveland’s CBS-TV affiliate.

“This shows a serious lack of judgment and indicates that you are violating the trust that has been placed in your hands for protecting and enhancing the University of Akron,” the letter stated.

They’re not the only ones protesting. Soccer fans in Switzerland held up a match by throwing PS4 controllers and other objects onto the field to protest the sport’s foray into eSports. And a recent survey found only 10 percent of respondents in favor of adding eSports to the Olympics as quickly as possible.

All that said, professional services firm Deloitte claimed in July that “by 2020, the global eSports market is expected to generate $1.5 billion in annual revenues, primarily from sponsorships and advertising, to an estimated global audience of 600 million fans.”

Maybe University of Akron officials are on to something, after all. Bracken Darrell, the CEO of hardware company Lgitech has boldly stated that "eSports will be the biggest sport in the world, much bigger than anything else. Even bigger than soccer." Darrell made that claim at the International Consumer Electronics Fair in Berlin, Germany, in early September. Gaming equipment has become the Logitech’s most-sold products, and the company now supplies equipment to many gaming professionals. No wonder Darrell calls Logitech the “adidas of eSports.”

"Nobody who's 70 or 80 plays eSports, but the younger ones do,” he told BusinessInsider.com. As they get older, the curve shifts upwards." 

He pointed to the Asian Olympic Committee, which determined last year that eSports will be an official medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games in China. And eSports could attain official Olympic status as early as 2024, Darrell predicted — in part because of gaming’s capacity to engage large younger audiences.

Not everyone shares Darrell’s — or the IOC’s — enthusiasm. "eSports are not sports,” according to Reinhard Grindel, president of the German soccer Association. "Soccer belongs on the playing field. Computer stuff doesn't come into that."

Tell that to the operators of eSports arenas hosting and the colleges and universities competing in eSports competitions — not to mention the parents who are hiring coaches to help their kids become better at Fortnite.

“Maybe you’re thinking it’s a stretch to call video gaming a ‘sport,’” wrote Forbes.com contributor Stephen McBride on Sept. 13. “Call it whatever you want, so long as you understand that massive sums of cash are pouring into this booming sector. There are now American video-gaming leagues modeled after the NBA and NFL. And like the NFL and NBA, esports have tens of millions of hardcore fans who will happily fork over $100 or more for a ticket to watch a big game live.”

Of course, eSports (and their athletes and fans) are share the problems found in many other sports today. There was a fatal shooting of two players at an eSports competition in Jacksonville, Florida, in August, which the gunman, a fellow competitor in the Madden NFL tournament, took his own life.

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