After hosting two events, fledgling program monetizes
With two events under its belt — a Rocket League tournament last September and a competitive Among Us tournament in November 2020 — Vikes Esports Association is looking to monetize the fledgling esports initiative by introducing a paid Premium Battle Pass tier for UVic students.
Tournaments and events will still be free to join under the regular Battle Pass. But if students want to win the big prizes, they’ll have to pay up.
There are few details regarding the specifics of the battle pass, though it is expected to debut later this month. There is currently no finalized price point but the paid premium battle pass allows participating students to unlock prizes, such as a $500 tuition credit. Vikes Intramural Programmer Joni Richardson says that the revenue from the premium passes will contribute to forming a varsity esports team and hub here at UVic.
That said, you still have to beat the competition to get the prize.
COVID-19 has provided Vikes the opportunity to move faster than they normally would for esports. Most Intramural programmes have been vastly scaled down, and restricted to on-campus residents only. On the other hand, with UVic’s pivot to being a mostly distance-learning school, engagement with all things digital has been increasing with mixed results.
Richardson, who oversees the UVic esports initiative, saw a need to connect with UVic students online, and esports seemed exactly what was needed, even if she didn’t really know what it was at first. “It’s taken me probably close to a year to wrap myself around that concept and understand what esports actually is.”
Esports is organized competitive video gaming — the NHLs and NBAs of video games, replete with million dollar contracts and sponsorship deals with big brands such as Nike. Before COVID-19, esport matches sold out stadiums and the industry was valued at over 1 billion dollars in 2019. Universities across Canada are now eyeing the potential of collegiate-level gaming as a way to attract students and open new revenue streams. Since 2018, the University of Toronto has offered an esports scholarship. Durham College has a full-fledged varsity team and regularly competes against American colleges in the CSL.
According to Richardson, who is overseeing UVic’s esport initiative, intramural esport programmes across Canadian post-secondary institutions aren’t exactly flourishing yet.
Events by student-run Esports Associations (EAs) like UBCEA and SFUEA are more established and draw a regular crowd, complete with sponsors, prize money, and live streamed matches. UVic does not have a student-led Esports Association, but the collection of UVSS-funded gaming clubs that make up the esports and gaming landscape at UVic continue to be active, with multiple clubs hosting monthly or weekly events.
Currently, the Vikes program has a volunteer student advisory body that works closely with Richardson, who is also supported by GYO Score, an esports company that was contracted for the initial esports rollout.
Richardson is not a gamer herself, but she brings more than a decade of experience in running intramurals along with a cherry, gung-ho attitude to supporting the Vikes Esports Association. After reading the Martlet’s reporting on Uvic’s esports scene, Richardson got in touch with recent UVic graduate and esports advocate Peter Hillar to better understand the student gaming community.
Hillar advised Richardson in the early days of the programme and helped Vikes organize the September Rocket League tournament in conjunction with the UVSS as part of the 2020 Thunderfest.
“I would be fooling myself to sit back and create a program without [student leadership]. It wouldn’t work,” said Richardson
Some popular game titles were excluded in the initial summer rollout due to concerns from UVic’s administration about the presence of guns and violence. As any gamer knows, military hardware and gratuitous depictions of violence is a familiar motif in many popular multiplayer games such as CS:GO, Smash Bros., League of Legends, and Valorant.
“It isn’t necessarily that Vikes said no,” explains Richardson when asked about the title exclusions, but a lack of gaming knowledge and a resistance to the unknown. She’s not comfortable with including games that she doesn’t fully understand yet. She brought up an example of bubble ball soccer as being a potentially viable but unknown sport that required more research, and notes that Vikes has not outright refused to host any particular game.
“Up until now, we’ve basically been figuring out by trial and error what games people want to play,” said Richardson. Turns out, people want to play popular games.
Among Us is a multiplatform multiplayer social deduction game released in 2018 which has seen a massive revival during the pandemic. Politicians such as Jagmeet Singh and Alexandria Orcasio-Cortez have been streaming the game, and it remains one of the top streamed games on the popular live-streaming platform Twitch.
During November, the Vikes Esports Association hosted a competitive Among Us tournament, with the winner receiving a $50 Amazon gift card, and pizza coupons for runners-up.
Student leadership and participation are very important to the success of a university esports community, as demonstrated by UBC’s famed esports association, now in its 11th year. It is entirely student-run and managed, and one of the largest communities within UBC.
In December, a student-organized collegiate tournament of first-person shooter multiplayer game Valorant, which involved B.C.’s three biggest universities, was jointly hosted by UBCEA and SFUEA, and UVSS’s CS:GO/Valorant club.
Big Boy Diamonds, UBC’s Division 1 team, won the tournament, along with the $1 000 cash prize sponsored by esports platform GamerzArena. SFUEA Co-President Brandon Situ says that over 300 people watched the ‘nail-biting’ final match, which was streamed virtually on Twitch. The UVic team was eliminated in the first round.
Keenly aware of the importance of student leadership through her years of experience in helping students run intramural teams, Richardson has looked into hiring a co-op student to help get the esports initiative off the ground.
“I would be fooling myself to sit back and create a program without [student leadership]. It wouldn’t work,” said Richardson, who is deeply appreciative of the perspective that students bring to the table. Throughout our interview, Richardson repeatedly emphasized Vikes’s openness to student participation in the fledgling program.
“If the pandemic magically disappears in January, this programme is still going to have strength,” said Richardson.