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The Legend of eSports

COURTESY PHOTO/Mark Cochran
The Panther eSports convention had a variety of board games, video games and tabletop games.

ANNA FLANDERS, Staff Writer

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Last Saturday, Panther eSports hosted UNI-Con. For 13 hours, attendees indulged in video games, board games and Magic: the Gathering, while also raising over $1,000 for veteran scholarships. An estimated 500 people attended.  The club is fairly new, having been started by UNI alumnus Jordan Allen in 2014.

“I know that’s only three years ago, but [gaming] really has changed a lot,” said Seán Dugan, a senior business administration major and the current president of Panther eSports. “Back in 2013 and ‘14, a lot of people still viewed gaming as like a niche little side group of people — an exclusive club.”

Upon Allen’s graduation, the organization fell dormant, but Dugan sought to restore the organization in fall 2016. Over a game of League of Legends, he recruited his friend Mark Cochran, a senior marketing major, to help with branding and advertising.

When this reincarnated version of Panther eSports sought to renew their contract as a student organization, they talked to student organizations coordinator Connie Hansen.

“I remember specifically when they came over when they were going to become a student org, and they pitched the idea, thinking in my head, ‘This is an awful idea!’,” Hansen said. “They’re not going to build community, and they’re not going to meet people and it won’t get them out of their rooms.”

It was after Panther eSports pitched their plan for throwing events and collaborating with other groups that Hansen got on board. She realized the full potential of the group’s vision and how it could be a real asset to the UNI community.

Panther eSports held their first meeting a few weeks into the fall 2016 semester. About a dozen gamers attended.

“All of us knew each other’s tags online, but none of us had actually met,” Cochran said, who is now vice president of Panther eSports. “So, you had to say your name and then say how you’re known online.”

At the time, the group’s Facebook page had 20 members. They now have 300. Around 150 of those regularly show up for weekly computer gaming sessions or biweekly in-person gaming events. The organization recognizes a “Game of the Week” and plays both casually and competitively. Other student organizations and even residence halls regularly reach out to Panther eSports as a resource for hosting gaming events. The group even has a gaming room during UNI Now.

The size of the group has even caused exceptions in some standard policies for student organizations.

“[UNI has been] talking about renovations to the Maucker Union for the next few years, and we’ve been part of those talks,” Dugan said. “Part of it that has changed has been understanding that student orgs need a lot more storage space than they originally thought. And we’ve been part of those talks, and they’ve changed some of their plans for the future because of that, which is really exciting to hear.”

Despite their extensive success, the group has faced some challenges. Dugan and Cochran agree that their greatest one has been a simple lack of storage.

“Gaming’s really capital intensive,” Cochran said. “In order for us to be able to provide this sort of community, we have to have all of this: all the capital of the gaming consoles, the computers, all of this; and we can’t get that until we have the space to put it.”

Another challenge has been providing food for such a large number of people on a limited budget. For health and safety reasons, events at UNI are ordinarily catered exclusively by UNI Catering. Panther eSports ordered from catering’s new student organization menu that offers food at a lowered rate.

“Panther eSports [. . .] was actually larger and a different scope than we usually allow to use that student org menu, because it’s meant for groups under 100,” said Jill Chelesvig, the general manager of UNI Catering. “And the focus of the student org menu is that 90 percent of those attending are UNI students, and so we knew that this [event] wouldn’t be. But their focus was to benefit UNI students, so I made the exception to allow them to order off that menu.”

Even with the reduced prices Panther eSports funds weren’t enough to feed 500 hungry gamers. They knew they would have to seek food donations. After three months of meetings with the DOR, the group was granted permission to do just that. Starbeck’s Smokehouse, a barbecue restaurant new to University Ave., donated pulled pork for UNI-Con.

For Pan-Con — Panther eSports’ spring gaming convention — Panther eSports will be exploring other funding sources, such as the Cedar Falls Tourism Board, as the event attracted gamers from Ames, the Quad Cities, Kansas City, Saint Louis and Minneapolis.

According to Dugan and Cochran, eSports are more relevant than ever. The NCAA, for example, is discussing picking up eSports as a collegiate-sanctioned sport, according to espn.com. The Olympics are also looking at picking up eSports in the future, according to kotaku.com

“As soon as it’s official that it’s going to be an [Olympic sport], the NCAA will pick it up immediately, because you want the training ground for Olympic training grounds in the United States,” Cochran said. “As soon as colleges pick up the sport, all high schools will.”

“There are a lot of colleges that have started to do really well in eSports,” Dugan said. “None of them have really distinguished themselves as the eSports university, and we’ve sat down and said, ‘The University of Northern Iowa can do this!’ We have the means and the potential to be the eSports University and attract students from all over the country and all over the world.”

Some of Panther eSports’ other long-term goals include 99 percent student awareness of the organization. Currently, Cochran estimates that the organization is at around 50 percent awareness. Panther eSports also wants a permanent 24-hour gaming facility.

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The Legend of eSports