Baker University’s athletics program to join a fast-growing video game industry with creation of esports team

photo by: Associated Press

In this July 28, 2018, file photo, fans watch the competition between Philadelphia Fusion and London Spitfire during the Overwatch League Grand Finals competition at Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Baker University is adding a new sport to its athletic program, but the team won’t be taking any fields or courts.

Instead, the team will be taking on the virtual world in video games.

The Baldwin City-based university announced last week that its athletic department is joining several other Kansas universities and colleges in launching an esports team, beginning with the 2019-2020 school year. The program will be its 25th offered sport and will participate in the National Association of Collegiate Esports organization.

While esports may not be the most obvious endeavor in college athletics, Baker will be joining a fast-growing sports industry. Just two days after announcing the launch of the program, Baker athletic director Nate Houser said the university had heard from 10 esports athletes — five current students and five prospective students — interested in joining the program.

By joining the esports competition, Houser said Baker may be able to attract more student-athletes to the university who are interested in academics focused on science, data and analytics.

“It’s really a chance for Baker to get outside of the box and bring in some different thinkers as we build our (academic) programs,” he said.

Several universities and colleges in Kansas — including Wichita State — and in Baker’s athletic conference have already launched esports programs, which should help Baker easily find competition. Houser specifically noted Ottawa University, which is located just down the highway from Baker, will likely become a standard competitor. Additionally, gaming can be done online, which means Baker doesn’t even need to leave campus to participate.

But Houser said the Baker program will absolutely be interested in national tournaments, which are held year-round at many different locales throughout the country. Earlier this week, ESPN announced it will host a national tournament called the College Esports Championship, which will be held in May. Several qualifying rounds will allow hundreds of North American collegiate programs to participate for a chance to reach the semifinals and championship, which will be aired on national television, according to an ESPN news release.

photo by: Associated Press

In this July 28, 2018, file photo, Philadelphia Fusion players compete against the London Spitfire during the Overwatch League Grand Finals at Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Houser said he’s not sure if Baker will be able to participate in ESPN’s tournament in the future, but he said it could possibly be a goal for the program to be on the national stage. While the athletic departments of the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, the state’s two largest universities, do not currently offer esports programs, Houser said esports are an athletic endeavor that creates a more even playing field for smaller universities.

“We want to compete at the highest level that we can,” he said. “Esports aren’t burdened with big schools and small schools. All things are equal. We’re really excited.”

To lead the program, Houser said the university hired Toby Ebel as the first esports coach. Ebel, who works for the university’s IT department, has served as an assistant volleyball coach for the last four years. But the main reason he was hired was his own experience with gaming, Houser said.

“We’re really fortunate,” Houser said of Ebel’s appointment. “It seemed like a natural fit for us to grow from within with (Ebel) and we’ll be able to see how he grows and how the program grows.”

Although he has a lot of experience gaming, Ebel said he has never personally participated in tournaments. But that doesn’t mean he can’t help the Baker student-athletes.

“It’s always been a hobby of mine. I’ve been a video game player since I was young,” he said.

While NACE provides esports opportunities in many different video games, Houser said the Baker program has tried to keep it open-ended on which games its teams will participate in.

Ebel said some of the most popular games in esports are Fortnite, League of Legends and Overwatch. He suspects all three will be the major interest of those who end up joining the program.

“If you want to be competitive, you have to play what everyone else is playing,” Ebel said.

Esports may not be the typical college athletic endeavor, but the money the industry has been creating in recent years suggests it could very well be the sport of the future.

In 2018, the esports industry made more than $865 million, and looks to reach the $1 billion mark this year, according to an ESPN report. Additionally, more and more gaming fans will spend hours watching streamers play the video games on YouTube or Twitch, which is a video streaming platform specifically created for gamers.

Ebel said the interest in esports seems to have increased rapidly, as he pointed to thousands of fans watching these gaming streams on a regular basis. Twitch averages one million people streaming gamer videos at any given time, according to CNBC.

“The numbers of people watching is incredible,” Ebel said.

While video game usage is fairly common among younger generations, Ebel said he thinks esports are continuing to grow at a rapid pace because they’re very accessible.

“It’s really taking off,” he said. “The internet has really helped. Anybody can be playing games at any time. You can be doing it from your home, from your phone or from your tablet.”

One big benefit of collegiate esports, including at Baker, is the possibility for students to earn athletic scholarships that otherwise would not have been available to them, Ebel said.

“That benefits everybody, that benefits society,” Ebel said. “We’re hopeful we can add to that. And Baker is one of the best schools in the Midwest, so if we can help get people through the programs and help them build a better life, we’re interested in that.”

With gaming being a virtual world, it also allows for a more equitable playing field for those who participate, Ebel said. While major college athletic competitions are split by gender, esports are co-ed, he said.

“We’re hoping we can have a lot of diversity on the team in a lot of different ways,” Ebel said. “It does equal the playing field.”

Contact Dylan Lysen

Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact University of Kansas, higher education, state government reporter Dylan Lysen:


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.