Back in 2021, Western’s athletics department expanded for the first time since 1976 with the addition of the Esports team.
The team plays in the National Junior College Athletic Association Esports (NJCCAE) league, comprised of two-year colleges from across the country, and competes in games such as Rocket League, Super Smash Bros., FIFA 21, and Overwatch – all on a variety of platforms, including Xbox and online. Competition includes nine weeks of queue-based Swiss-style play where participants play one match per week, per title. The top performers are invited to a single-elimination bracket at the end of each term.
According to Western Athletic Manager Ryan Monroe, the Esports world is surging in popularity. The NJCAA itself has grown from 60 members just a short time ago, to now over 227 members competing this spring.
“A large majority of teenagers are playing video games,” said Ryan. “There’s been an increasing interest for quite some time. This is just taking it to a whole new level. This allows them to have it as an aspect of athletics, and compete as a team and as an individual.”
Student-athletes on the team are treated like all other athletes at Western. This includes eligibility and compliance requirements. Cody Murphy, the team’s head coach since the program launched, says the program has grown exponentially.
“We are ahead of the curve at Western,” he said. “But others are catching on.” In its first year, the team achieved its first individual national championship, as Avery Strangstalien won playing Hearthstone, an online collectable card game. Last fall, Western also announced a partnership with Rockstar Energy Drink, allowing for upgrades to the Esports Arena and an increase in overall awareness on campus.
The team and club are quickly outgrowing their space in the lower level of the Kumm Center, located in the heart of the La Crosse campus. The space dons gaming computers, as well as Nintendo, PlayStation, and Xbox. Cody and his assistant coach, Dustin Schultz, say the physical space, as well as the team itself, are frequently used as a recruiting tool for prospective students.
Above all, Ryan says it’s important to recognize the competitive aspect of gaming, and the impact it has on students.
“It’s a great opportunity for everybody to have a competitive spirit to your life. You can learn a lot about competition from being on teams, as well as the social impact from it,” he said. “At the end of the day, they are going to have the opportunity to compete for a national championship.”