Alberta colleges exploring e-sports opportunities amid pandemic athletics shutdowns

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Lethbridge College among Alberta schools exploring collegiate e-sports opportunities
WATCH: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought most college sports to a halt, but it has opened the door for schools to explore different competition options. As Danica Ferris explains, the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference has teamed up with a provincial e-sports group. – Oct 30, 2020

The Lethbridge College Kodiaks were supposed to be be hosting the 2020 ACAC soccer championships this weekend, but with COVID-19 shutting the door on traditional sports, it’s opened the door for a different type of competition.

The Kodiaks are among many schools exploring e-sports opportunities.

“We’ve actually talked about e-sports for quite some time now,” said Lethbridge College’s manager of athletics, Todd Caughlin.

“It’s always kind of been in the background, but also on the horizon, as something we could look at.”

COVID-19 shutdowns have provided the time for schools like Lethbridge College to try out e-sports, with the a pair of Kodiaks e-athletes taking part in the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association’s first ever Gaming Challenge, competing in the FIFA20 game on both Xbox and Playstation.

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While the CCAA Gaming Challenge is on a national scale, provincially, the Alberta Colleges Athletic Association (ACAC) is also taking steps to welcome e-sports into the collegiate space.

Earlier this month, the ACAC announced a partnership with the Alberta E-Sports Association (AESA), a non-profit looking to grow competitive gaming in the province.

“We have been talking about it for a number of years and we certainly weren’t ignoring the fact that e-sports had been growing in popularity,” said ACAC CEO Mark Kosak.

“We hadn’t really had a chance to sink our teeth into it, but unquestionably, COVID has been the catalyst.”

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Kosak says when word got out that the ACAC was exploring options, it was approached by other schools.

“[We have had] non-ACAC members who have actually knocked on our door, and said, ‘Listen, can we partner with you? We’re not part of your conference, but we understand you’re preparing to deliver e-sports as an activity, and we’re looking for a league,'” he said.

AESA co-founder Victor Ly says he’s thrilled the ACAC approached his organization and that supporting e-sports in colleges just makes sense.

“E-sports has been around, especially in the college space, for years,” Ly said.

“Kids were playing arcade cabinets within their dorms, and there’s not a college dorm on the planet that you’re going to walk down the hallway and not see someone playing Smash Bros.”

Ly also works as an instructor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, which is now offering an e-sports management certificate.

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Ly and his co-founder Brad Jones created AESA in April of 2020, and Ly says the industry has seen even more growth than it was already experiencing thanks to COVID-19.

“The industry as a whole – in terms of gamership – has grown about 46 per cent, in terms of daily active users, and as a result stock prices for game developers have also gone up about 25 per cent during this time, so that is kind of the silver lining,” he said.

“E-sports at a global level has become a billion-dollar industry, from it’s very humble beginnings in these college dorms, in arcades, in our parents’ basements, and especially in the last five years, e-sports has become a legitimate career opportunity,” he said.

Ly says the hope from both him and the ACAC is that one day e-sports teams could operate under the traditional collegiate athletics umbrella, with all the resources available to student athletes.

“The goal is to ultimately incorporate and sanction e-sports in line with traditional sports,” he said.

“What these colleges can provide are streamlined opportunities, scholarship opportunities, for these students that have these high aspirations, and to help supplement their growth.”

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At Lethbridge College, Caughlin says discussions have already started about how e-sports could look under the Kodiaks.

“We’ve already talked about how it would be housed under the athletics department, but it would be a true college team,” Caughlin said. “Because you don’t have to be an athlete – per se, as in on the court every day – to participate, but I wouldn’t ever want to run the program without the standards that we work so hard to put in place for all the student athletes.”

Caughlin said he believes the appetite for collegiate e-sports will quickly grow.

“You have to start somewhere, and I think once people start seeing the results of this, and that there is more structure to it, then I think we will see big interest,” he said.

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The CCAA FIFA20 Gaming Challenge is in action from Oct. 27 to Nov. 12. The first tournament put on by the ACAC and AESA — playing Smash Bros. Ultimate on Nintendo Switch — is set for Nov. 21.

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