Expanding athletic programs with esports

By David Ball

An esports program at an Iowa community college provides student-athletes with new opportunities.

Hawkeye Community College launched a competitive esports program in fall 2018 as part of a larger rollout of intercollegiate athletics. Starting with sports shooting in 2015, the four-year plan called for adding one or two programs a year.

Sports were selected based on multiple factors, including popularity at the high school level in Iowa and the Midwest, as well as facility needs for competition. We also looked at the kind of student-athletes each program would recruit. We wanted to provide diverse opportunities for students with different interests and different skillsets.

That’s where esports came into the picture. The majority of the athletic programs added were what I would call “traditional” sports: volleyball, soccer, cross county, track and field, etc. Sports shooting may seem like an outlier, but the college had a strong club team before intercollegiate play began, and the sport has seen continuous growth and popularity in high schools, which made it a natural fit.

Esports follows the same vein. Esports have been popular for some time, but in recent years the growth has been exponential. Esports requires a lot of the same traits sought in traditional athletic programs: student-athletes have to be able to work as a team, to think on their feet and to have a competitive drive. There is even a level of physicality required to be successful in the sport – especially endurance.

At the time, only a handful of colleges in the state were preparing to launch esports programs, and none of them were community colleges. It felt like the logical direction for expanding Hawkeye RedTail Athletics.

When we announced the new program in spring 2018, Hawkeye became the first community college in the state affiliated with the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE). Interest from prospective students was immediate. A combination of local and regional media coverage and some digital marketing resulted in inquiries from across the U.S., and even abroad. During the early days of recruitment, the coach fielded three to five new recruit inquiries a day, with students from as far as Italy interested in becoming RedTail student-athletes.

The recruitment process mirrors those of the other athletic programs, including the ability to grant scholarships. Student-athletes are held to the same standards, including weekly practices, grade point average minimums and team uniforms.

The first recruiting class, which began competition in fall 2018, included a roster of 16 student-athletes, with a mix of students who were already enrolled at Hawkeye Community College and new students who enrolled because of the esports program. The team began competition in Overwatch, facing high-profile colleges like Baylor, Penn State and UCLA. On Nov. 9, the team reached No. 56 in the collegiate Overwatch rankings, making them the top-ranked team in the state.

Competition is held in an “arena” on campus, with all the players in a shared room, sharing the experience in person, as well as online. This has created a strong community and support network among the players.

As one student-athlete recently said, “It gives an opportunity for students who maybe weren’t in a sport in high school, who didn’t get that close feeling from a sports team – they get that feeling here.”  This sense of belonging is a huge part of student retention, and the fact that the esports team has the best retention rate of any of our athletic programs bears this out.

Esports are a great addition to Hawkeye Community College. Their success has helped raise the team’s profile, and will no doubt help with recruiting the next crop of student-athletes.

David Ball

is director of admissions, recruiting, athletics, and student life at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa.