SUNY Canton takes a holistic approach to collegiate esports

SUNY Canton freshman and Overwatch team captain Emily Oeser said the immersive SUNY collegiate esports program renewed her passion for gaming. Provided by SUNY Canton

The State University of New York at Canton recognizes collegiate esports as more than just a varsity sport. Soon, SUNY will make it a lifestyle.

The Canton, New York, institution announced Dec. 5 that it will add esports to its athletics offerings in 2018. But the school has much bigger plans than that. From a residence hall that caters to esports enthusiasts to a competitive space on campus and including its online students in potential rosters, SUNY Canton plans to take a holistic approach to incorporating gaming into the university.

"This wasn't just the head of athletics saying, 'I think this is a good idea,' " university president Zvi Szafran said. "It was him and other personnel in the athletics area and our academics converging with that area of interest.

"It was a full-campus press."

SUNY Canton, Szafran said, is working with vendors to get the gear and setup it needs to begin competition in League of Legends, Hearthstone and Overwatch by January or February. The Eastern College Athletic Conference, where SUNY Canton competes in other sports, is also interested in e-versions of its traditional offerings, such as Madden, NBA 2K and FIFA, though conference competition in those esports has not been formalized yet.

The timing couldn't be better for freshman Emily Oeser. The Canajoharie, New York, native came to SUNY Canton and was a general studies major. Then, the esports opportunity came up, and with it several new majors at SUNY Canton that complement the program well, including majors in cybersecurity, technological communication and graphic and multimedia design. Oeser expressed her interest in esports and took a shot on another one of the new majors: game design and development.

"It rekindled this old passion I had for video games and competition that I had when I was younger," Oeser said. "I actually got the opportunity of being the esports Overwatch captain for the team, and that really changed everything that I thought about my college career."

That goes for Rob Snow, too. He's the head coach of SUNY Canton's esports program and works with the engineering school. Although he has had a lifelong interest in gaming -- his first system was the Atari 2600 -- he hasn't had an opportunity quite like this one before.

"What's happening is more than I ever imagined would happen, not only that we're committing to an esports room in one of our academic buildings but also the esports wing in one of our residence buildings," Snow said. "The leadership at this school, the president, the vice presidents, are behind it 110 percent."

Recruitment is well underway, with quite a few prospective students already expressing interest, Snow said. The school's burgeoning Super Smash Bros. community is a future target for a varsity program as well, as is giving online students the opportunity to compete. Those players would become some of the first remote varsity athletes. Club teams across the country have put rosters together with students from multiple campuses, but a remote varsity scholarship opportunity would break new ground, both in the college gaming scene and in collegiate athletics.

"We want our online students to be totally integrated into the life of the college," Szafran said. "Esports, in one sense, is a way of giving an applied thing to some of our academic programs. Esports is one way we're going to move toward a plan of having athletics available to everybody, and esports is a way we're going to integrate online students into campus life."