Identifying with one of the country’s greatest natural wonders, it seems more than appropriate its university namesake would approach esports in a truly grand manner. Such success can be seen in the spectacular esports facility and program at Grand Canyon University in the heart of Phoenix, Arizona.
And yet, it wasn’t until 2018 that GCU went “all in” on esports. That year saw the founding of not only the GCU Esports Arena, but the founding of the modern GCU Esports student organization. Student registration of 60 at the time of the opening grew exponentially, hitting 900 by the end of the following semester (Spring 2019). So rapid was this growth, the brand-new facility received a 3300 square foot expansion that now houses its current complement of 72 PCs for general student use, a tripling of console and lounge space, while also doubling the student workforce. In Fall 2019, the total number of new students esports registrations reached over 750 for that semester alone, while also boasting a Discord server community of over 1,300 active users.
GCU students take esports seriously and broadly. Currently, 124 students compete across Varsity & Junior-Varsity teams encompassing: Overwatch, League of Legends, Dota 2, Rainbow Six: Siege, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Rocket League, Fortnite, Apex Legends, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Hearthstone, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Teamfight Tactics, and more.
As with many schools, GCU’s attraction to esports had much to do with video games being a manifestation of STEM. Historically, GCU had provided a room and equipment for a small but dedicated group of students to compete in Overwatch and League of Legends. GCU leadership soon came to realize esports could create a community where all current and future students could participate. To that end, Esports at GCU received a dedicated annual budget, staff support, a facility available to all students, and the equipment to match the needs of both competitors and casual players.
Mindful of its STEM connection, GCU Esports is formally a department residing under the academic umbrella of Technology. Realizing esports is the entertainment choice of 21st-century digital natives, GCU Esports operations are also linked to university marketing and admissions.
GCU Esports Coordinator, Albert Lee, is a major supporter of GCU’s mantra on community focus. “I believe that a community-first approach is the catalyst towards creating a program that can drive forward the standard of success in North America. Without the support & passion of students, a university has nothing to invest in – as such, we invest the most back into the students themselves.” Albert is very mindful of another advantage of this community approach. “As more students participate in the community, we receive a greater pool of potential competitors for our teams to recruit.”
GCU’s emphasis on community transcends the school itself and includes the local community. Each month, GCU, in partnership with local high school administrations, invites students to visit campus for a GCU Day tour. During these visits, the GCU Esports Arena is reserved for their use. Students are given a STEM-affiliated lesson followed by all-day access to its first-rate, professional esports facility.
GCU’s esports teams also travel to nearby low-income high schools, and even reach out to distant campuses to provide online training and practice scrimmages to high school players. GCU has even added a high school tournament where seven high schools competed for prizes. February 2020 will see GCU launch prospective student tourneys where students across Arizona will compete for scholarships and other prizes.
Albert Lee reflects on the power of community: “I believe that the key to success for Grand Canyon University was not simply a single rule or investment, nor was it the act of building a facility or hiring full-time staff. Rather, GCU’s commitment to students was what paved the way to today’s growth. We have here at GCU a mutual effort by both the community and their student leadership, and not just the Esports department, but the entire administration. Our commitment to growing together helps us understand the needs of our students while in turn providing the students with ownership and direction.”
Grand Canyon University’s success with esports stands as a model for other schools considering such an initiative.