MANKATO -- When students were recently welcomed to training camp at Minnesota State University, Mankato it wasn’t on a football field or a basketball court.

Instead, esports varsity players have a training site of their own at the campus. Instead of punching bags or treadmills, there’s a space decked out with high-end Alienware gaming computers and chairs, where the clipped voices and explosions of Call of Duty blend with the shouts of encouragement from spectators.

But it's in an adjacent studio where the magic really happens, as student broadcasters learn how to be commentators and present video games to online and broadcast audiences.

Watching it unfold is Jacqueline Lamm, the head coach for the esports varsity team at MSU Mankato. She’s played video games her entire life, and has been teaching and researching while building the esports program at the university. She said when she discovered a way to convert her passion into a career, she took the leap.

“The turning point for me for an esports career for myself was really that first class and creating those research programs,” she said. “And it just made me realize that this is what I really want to do. I had no idea what I really actually wanted to do in life. I'm like, this is it. Like, if I can get into this, my dream job, I get to do what I'm passionate about and play video games, too.”

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Esports are video game competitions that can be played at the high school, college, casual or even pro level. Most games are between two teams, made up of five to six players.

Organized competitions have long been popular in gaming culture but saw a surge in popularity about a decade ago. That’s when live streaming events brought professional gamers and spectators together, allowing large audiences to follow the action.

Esports became a huge part of the video game industry with many game developers actively designing and providing funding for tournaments.

Events grew around titles including Call of Duty, Smash Brothers, League of Legends, Fortnite, Rocket League and Madden.

However, the MSU Mankato program isn’t just about playing video games or competitive play. Students can learn how to become sportscasters and livestream content. They learn about digital marketing, and if they don’t make the varsity team, they can play club competitions. They’ll also learn how to create careers from the very thing that they love — gaming.

The MSU Mankato esports training facility. The space is outfitted with top-of-the line Alienware gaming desktop computers. Varsity players train here, but students also are able to play in the space as well. Hannah Yang / MPR News
The MSU Mankato esports training facility. The space is outfitted with top-of-the line Alienware gaming desktop computers. Varsity players train here, but students also are able to play in the space as well. Hannah Yang / MPR News

The program has skyrocketed since it debuted last spring, Lamm said. There are more than 500 student members of the gamer student organizations on campus and she’s looking to try out 100 students at the end of the month to fill 70 varsity spots.

There’s also opportunities for varsity players to earn scholarship money to help pay for their education, and Lamm is always on the lookout for more.

“There's different scholarship opportunities, that literally I have to keep track of just monthly just to make sure that we're on top of all the right requirements, and that we're participating in the correct leagues.”

Building teamwork, community and more

Esports isn’t just big in the college scene, but also in high school, too. During the COVID-19 pandemic, gaming became an outlet for many students to find community when they couldn’t meet in person.

Simon Palmer is a Burnsville High School senior and president of his esports club. He loves playing Call of Duty. But he said he’s learned real-life skills from esports too, like prioritizing school work and academics because of a strict GPA requirement to be on the team. He’s also been helping teammates with their studies so that they can play, too.

“That motivates me a lot more to keep this stuff like this going,” he said. “Because it shows me that kids are putting an effort to be able to play games, which I love.”

Palmer also learned quickly about the size of the gaming community.

“Especially with COVID like this past year, esports overall has just like blown up so much, just because everybody's stuck at home,” he said “Like what else are you going to do besides play video games?”

Esports does have its issues. There’s a lack of player diversity when it comes to gender representation and racial demographics. There are also problems with online bullying, toxicity and resulting mental health problems that coaches are trying to address.

Ed Lallier is the co-founder of Vanta Leagues, a youth esports development program that provides expert coaching and mentorship for youth ages 9-14.

Behind the scenes of the Mavericks esports training camp, students learn how to put together a broadcast and produce a livestream event. Hannah Yang / MPR News
Behind the scenes of the Mavericks esports training camp, students learn how to put together a broadcast and produce a livestream event. Hannah Yang / MPR News

“We want to build something that sets the tone right at the beginning, build those best practices,” he said. “It's not a hard task to be just a good person when you're gaming. It's just natural.”

And parents might not always be too understanding of how video games might be useful in the real world. Meredith Wilcox goes by the online gamer persona “Gracie Star.” She spoke on a panel at the recent Mavericks esports training camp hosted by MSU Mankato.

Wilcox said esports provides inclusive opportunities for all players, something traditional sports can’t do. She said that at the park and recreation leagues she’s involved in, some of the young top competitors use wheelchairs.

”When you don't allow students to compete in something that, or you're scared of it, you actually do take away such like a huge experience for them in high school,” she said. “With esports and video games, you're giving them the opportunity to compete and to grow without, you know, sustaining injuries.”

At MSU Mankato, the esports program isn’t focused just solely on competition. They’re bringing in people who have similar interests together and connect them. They build teamwork, and community and more — using something as simple as picking up a controller.