Butler Esports Park Powers Up

Butler ESports Park illustrating a coach talking to a team of gamers
Illustration by Curt Merlo

INSIDE A SPACE once noted for chicken and waffles, the future of college athletics is taking shape. On August 24, the former Metro Diner on Butler University’s campus opens as Butler Esports Park, a 7,500-square-foot space featuring approximately 40 PCs, gaming consoles, virtual-reality stations, and a cafe. Here, Butler will field teams that compete against Big East schools in online video games such as League of Legends and Rocket League, competitions that will be broadcast on Twitch and YouTube. 

Ovid Butler’s university, which opened in 1855 offering courses in, among other things, Tacitus (Roman historian and politician) and Greek antiquities, today grants a minor in esports communication that begins with a course called Esports: The World of Competitive Gaming. But before you bemoan the state of education or wonder why parents spend upward of $200,000 to send their kids to college to play video games, listen to the people involved.

“The venue will open countless doors for Butler to be an esports attraction and educational technology hub for the region,” says Eric Kammeyer, Butler’s director of esports and gaming technology. (Full disclosure: I worked at Butler for nearly 15 years and earned a graduate degree there, but had no relationship with the esports program.)

The space will offer gameplay memberships for the community, access for corporate trainings, youth STEM events, esports camps, and versatility for most technology-infused events. It will also have broadcasting production capabilities for live events such as podcasts and esports competitions. In other words, says Lee Farquhar, interim director of Butler’s School of Journalism & Creative Media, for every student playing the games, dozens of students, faculty, and staff will support them through video production, marketing, promotions, graphic design, and social media.

Meanwhile, the kids who play are learning teamwork. Like their athletic counterparts around the corner at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler esports students practice, study films, and play scrimmages to improve their physical and mental dexterity. “Esports doesn’t have the physical aspect that traditional sports do, but it does have the mental aspect that you need to have in order to be competitive,” says Matt Hafele, a Butler junior who played baseball in high school and now plays Valorant, a game “where precise gunplay meets unique agent abilities,” according to the game’s website.

Development of mental acuity from playing video games turns out to be remarkably useful. Dimitrios Stefanidis, surgeon and professor of surgery at Indiana University School of Medicine, says there’s evidence that the more video games you play, the better you are at things like laparoscopic surgery.

“That’s true in surgery generally,” says Stefanidis, who grew up in Greece and Germany playing Atari video games. “But it’s especially true in laparoscopy because you don’t have your hands there to touch things. You touch with instruments, but from a distance. You have to rely more on hand-eye coordination. That’s a lot of what video gaming is.”

[pullquote align=”left” caption=”Adam Sweeny, Gaming @ IU founder”]”There are statistics out there that show more 18- to 25-year-old males watch esports than any traditional sport. That’s something I never thought I would see.”[/pullquote]

Organized, competitive video gaming at Indiana colleges dates back at least to the 1990s, when brothers Adam and Jonathan Sweeny founded the Indiana University Computer Gaming Club (now called Gaming @ IU). These days, Adam works in the information technology department at IU, and Jonathan is a computer scientist with the FBI in Indianapolis. Adam says in the ’90s—“long before words like ‘esports’ were even a thing”—the gaming club would have 12-hour events in the Indiana Memorial Union with 30 to 40 participants.

IU never fully embraced gaming the way other Indiana colleges and universities have, but Adam’s experience helped him develop technical skills and build relationships, and at least a dozen former student officers of the gaming club now have tech-related jobs at the university. “The part that amazes me about gaming now is the reach,” he says. “There are statistics out there that show more 18- to 25-year-old males watch esports than any traditional sport. That’s something I never thought I would see.”

There may be no better evangelist for college esports than Todd Burris, the 52-year-old coach of GRIZ Gaming at Franklin College. Burris grew up in Northern Indiana obsessively playing Nintendo games and was newly retired from the insurance industry when he saw the ad for an esports coach. Since he was hired in August 2021, the college has converted an old racquetball court into an “arena”—18 computers meticulously lined up in two rows of nine, video monitors on the wall, gold-and-blue lighting—and has fielded four teams.

He tells parents: Despite the stereotype of gamers sitting around all day, the team works with athletic trainers and nutritionists. The students are getting physical activity. They’re training their body to resist carpal tunnel syndrome and back and neck injuries. Their weight-training program targets the areas that need to be strengthened for cardio. “I don’t want the video gamers drinking soda pop and eating pizza,” Burris says. “We want to try to monitor what’s going in their body.”

He also wants the students, a largely introverted bunch, to turn into collaborative team players.

“I want to win, but my program is not about the game—it’s about succeeding in the classroom and succeeding in life,” he says. “I’m all about: What kind of experience can I provide these kids?”

According to James Shelton, a senior computer science and software engineering major who came to Franklin from Texas, the experience is a great one. He started the college jazz band and works for the college’s IT department. After he graduates, he wants to be a cybersecurity researcher.

“Before this was here,” Shelton says, gesturing to the gaming arena, “playing was fun and enjoyable. But when Todd came along, it felt like I was being pushed a lot harder. There was a lot more structure around it.”

Not wanting to be left out, Ball State University has built a formidable esports program as well. Ball State head coach Dan Marino shares a name with the NFL Hall of Fame quarterback. (“And I have just as many Super Bowl rings,” he says, laughing.) Marino’s teams play in a 3,600-square-foot esports center that opened in April 2021, equipped with 36 top-of-the-line computers. They also have two simulated auto-racing setups and a full production facility in the back of the room to broadcast the games. This semester, Marino has his first recruiting class coming in, “filled with hypertalented students who are going to be playing on various teams to help raise our competitive profile.” He also boasts that Ball State’s broadcast production is one of the best in the conference in terms of its quality and consistency. The university has introduced an esports production concentration to its Department of Media, and esports has a partnership with the university’s sports psychology program where graduate students work as performance coaches and help with the mental side of the game—how to work as a team, set goals, and communicate with one another.

Right now, he says, the biggest challenge esports programs face is “that most alumni don’t know what it is. They don’t know the games, and they don’t know how they’re played. It’s also hard to find and watch sometimes. But as we graduate more students who are familiar with and passionate about esports, we’ll have more support for the programs. I really do think it will begin to rival other collegiate athletics.”