The New Home Team: Varsity Gaming at the University of Utah

Video gaming is a big industry. I’m not talking here about the making and selling of games, consoles and the like. Playing the games. As in, professional gamers competing with one another for massive prizes, watched by millions of viewers. And now, the University of Utah has a varsity sports team to compete in that rapidly growing arena. Make that an esports team.

Wait, what?

Yes, esports is really a thing. And it’s just as competitive as any other athletic field. Globally, the nascent esports industry is predicted to generate $1 billion annually by or before 2020. Small potatoes by NFL standards; the sector, however, is growing at 36 percent per year.

eSports Revenue Growth
(numbers in millions of dollars)
Total Revenues (media rights, advertising, sponsorship, merchandise & tickets, game publisher fees) Brand Investment Revenues (media rights, advertising, sponsorships) Total Revenues (Percentage)
2015 $325 $230
2016 $493 $350 +51.7%
2017 (until Q3) $660 $484 +33.9%
2020 projected $1,504 $1,233 +35.9%

For those of us who associate gaming with unshaven millennials bunkered behind empty pizza boxes in their parents’ basements, the following may shake our perceptions:

ESPN now has a segment dedicated to esports. A quick browse through reveals a bewildering mélange of headlines such as (October 26, 2017) “Punk wins Red Bull Battlegrounds North American qualifier and Capcom Cup No. 1 seed”; “Kirk Lacob of the Warriors: ‘League of Legends is obviously best in class’”; “Sources: Arrow to join OpTic Gaming”; “Seoul Dynasty coach Hocury: ‘People are underrating all the non-Korean teams’”; and “Pulling in Pobelter is Liquid’s best move.” You know, the sort of sports-blather that rivets fans and followers, while signifying nothing to the rest of us.

Gaming could become an Olympic event. Really. Tony Estanguet, co-president of the Paris bid committee—Paris, apparently, has landed the 2024 games—is lobbying the International Olympic Committee for esports’ inclusion into the Games. “The youth, yes, they are interested in esport,” Estanguet said. “Let’s look at it. Let’s meet them.” Already, the Olympic Council of Asia will include esports in the 2022 Asian Games. (For those who, like myself, have never heard of the Olympic Council of Asia and the Asian Games: it’s only “the second-largest multi-sport event after the Olympics” and is recognized by the International Olympic Committee.)

People fill stadiums to watch esporting events. Big stadiums. 90,000 seats big. OK, so it’s China where folks are really, really into their gaming, but still …

Speaking of China: esports gambling is so big that one betting platform launched its own cryptocurrency to offer “responsible bookmaking for the long haul in esports.” The cryptocurrency, UnikoinGold, “took in $15 million from investors including Mark Cuban” in its pre-sale.

The Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas will house an entire esports arena by early 2018.

Gamers are turning to substances of, um, questionable legality to gain an edge. And you know a sport has truly arrived when doping becomes an issue, right?

Varsity esports programs are proliferating across universities. Which brings us full circle to the core of this article: the University of Utah’s esports team. In addition to the U, Trine University, Wesleyan, Georgia State, Bellevue, Columbia College, Boise State, UC Irvine, University of Jamestown and quite a few more—around 50 programs, according to ESPN—make up the constituency of the fledgling National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE).

People just don’t get it

“People don’t understand how big these communities are on campuses,” A.J. Dimick says, “especially at the University of Utah.” Dimick directs Utah Esports for the U of U, and readily admits his propensity for diatribes. I asked his response to naysayers who doubt esports’s validity as serious varsity material.

“People who say that are simply uneducated about what this is and who these students are.” Dimick explains that “they are a team. They have positions and roles. They study film on themselves and their opponents. They train together 20 hours a week.”

Dimick is understandably vexed at outsiders who trivialize varsity esports or suggest that his elite players are anything but athletes. “We absolutely consider them student athletes,” he states. “And we consider this a sport.” These kids have “coaches, trainers and sports psychologists.” And they tend to be quality students as well. “Most of our players are in STEM majors,” he explains, adding that “we average over a 3.0 [GPA] as a team.” In short, “these are exactly the type of students you want to attract to your campus.”

Students aren’t sitting around waiting for their institutions to give them support, either—just recently, 11 Pac-12 universities formed the Pacific Alliance of Collegiate Gamers (PACG), an unsponsored and unofficial esports league that hopes to showcase the popularity of esports and eventually garner institutional support. According to the PACG press release, the University of Utah will be the only official collegiate varsity program in the PACG organization.


Even before rolling out Utah Esports, the University of Utah was known for its Entertainment Arts and Engineering Master Games Studio (EAE:MGS, usually referred to as EAE). The program offers three undergrad degrees and five graduate tracks, and makes the U “one of the premiere places in the country” for anyone interested in “studying games or making games as a career,” per Dimick. He adds that, “with esports, we expand that.”

While many universities, as noted above, have varsity esports, the U is one of a kind with its potent mix of EAE and Utah Esports. “We like to brand ourselves GamerU,” Dimick says, not without a note of pride. EAE “has been ranked the No. 1 video game program in the nation for three of the past five years by the Princeton Review,” boasts an October 4, 2017 University of Utah press release.

Over 200 gamers “from all over the country” vied to be part of the Utah Esports varsity team; 33 made the cut. Now they’ll compete in “four online video games throughout the school year”: Overwatch, League of Legends, Rocket League and Hearthstone. The press release notes that many of the team’s players “have been playing their respective games for years.

After all, if a freshman started playing a game at, say, eight years old and played it fanatically since, she or he would have a decade of hard training. A person could conceivably play at a Kobe Bryant-type level before exiting the teens.

At least, that’s what Dimick is hoping for. And then, take it even further. – JA

Banner photo by Manny Lorras

Going Pro: Next stop for esports athletes: the NBA?

While it’s difficult for any college athlete to go pro in their chosen sport, that level actually exists for esports, as well—and what defines “the pros” has rapidly been expanding. Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch League began in January 2018 with 12 teams competing over a prize pool of $3.5 million available. And traditional and venerated sports leagues like the National Basketball Association are getting in on the action as well.

Take-Two Interactive, the publisher and distributor of the popular NBA 2k games, has partnered with the NBA to create a 17-team esports NBA 2k league. Those 17 teams are all owned by actual NBA franchises, one of which is our very own Utah Jazz. The Jazz were actually in the process of considering an esports team before the NBA came calling, says Josh Barney, director of esports and tech for the team, called Jazz Gaming—so when the opportunity presented itself, the Jazz were ready to go.

“We started about a year and a half ago on an education process of what it means to participate in esports,” says Barney. “Then the NBA came calling and said they were interested in doing [the new league]. By the time we got to this point, we were six to seven months into our learning process.

The NBA had wanted at least eight teams to participate, and with 17 coming forward, they got a much better response than expected.

The new league’s inaugural season will begin in May 2018 and run through August, with 14 weeks of games and then three smaller tournaments. The process of selecting players for the league is quite similar to the traditional sport method. Barney and Jazz Gaming Manager Angie Klingsieck (who is credited with starting the U’s Crimson Gaming) will evaluate professional players from around the globe (China excepted). In March, Jazz Gaming and the other 16 teams will participate in a draft—much like the NBA Draft—to assemble their teams. Then, they will fly their five players in to Salt Lake City, house them and get them ready for the summer season.

While the media rights for the league are still being worked out, fans will be able to watch Jazz Gaming play on an online viewing platform. The teams won’t play in their home arenas—no chance of watching the local fab five at Vivint Smart Home Arena—but rather at a neutral esports arena on one of the coasts.

That esports should be embraced by a league like the NBA is no surprise to Barney.

“Everybody plays video games to some extent. My parents play solitaire. People have Candy Crush on their phones. Playing games has always been around,” says Barney. “People also recognize skill when others play games. It’s just a natural process—when people are good and competitive, they want to play others and see if they’re the best. It’s a natural progression, like it would be in traditional sports. People want to watch people who are skillful. It’s just kind of an organic growth.” – AT

Jacob Andra is a writer, award-winning digital marketer, and technologist living in Salt Lake City. Specialties include account-based marketing, growth hacking for startups, blockchain, fintech, and international issues. He enjoys history, the outdoors, podcasts, and a good book.