Over the past decade, the St. Ambrose athletics department has added multiple programs designed to reflect the changing interests of today’s college students.
Men’s volleyball, men’s and women’s lacrosse, bowling and swimming and an athletics band have been added to a collection of offerings that entered a brand new world Friday when the Fighting Bees announced the formation of an esports program.
Beginning in the fall semester of the 2018-19 academic year, St. Ambrose will field teams that will initially play Overwatch and League of Legends — both popular electronic games — against teams from other colleges across the country.
Just like St. Ambrose students who participate in the other 28 varsity programs overseen by the athletics department, the Davenport university will offer talent-based scholarships to the top gamers it can attract to its campus.
Director of athletics Ray Shovlain said the addition of esports reflects changing times and mirrors the academic focus of the institution in many respects, likely attracting student-athletes who have interest in STEM programs, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics academic majors already offered by the university.
“The leadership of our university in selecting new athletic programs has been on the cutting edge and I really feel this is another example of that,’’ Shovlain said.
“Over the past decade, our health sciences and engineering programs have attracted a number of student-athletes to the campus and the addition of esports is another avenue for our institution to grow as the world shifts and changes. We're on the forefront.’’
Nearly a year of research preceded Friday’s announcement, and Shovlain credited St. Ambrose president Sister Joan Lescinski, vice president of finance Michael Poster and vice president of enrollment management James Loftus with helping to make the program a reality.
St. Ambrose will be the third college in Iowa to offer esports, joining Grand View University in Des Moines and Morningside College in Sioux City.
Three Illinois universities, Robert Morris in Chicago, Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington and Illinois College in Jacksonville, also are among the nearly 50 members of the National Association of Collegiate Esports.
The nonprofit association, known as NACE, oversees national rules and competition in the sport.
The organization sponsors national championships in seven esports, but St. Ambrose will begin its program by competing in the two most popular programs.
Typically, teams consist of seven competitors from each school for each game The teams will be coed, with scholarship opportunities available for both male and female gamers.
The Fighting Bees’ schedule will include both duals and tournament-style events during a season that begins in October and runs through February, culminating in national tournaments with fields determined through a qualifying process much like in other sports.
“Esports are getting bigger and we are glad to be at the forefront of that expansion,’’ Shovlain said. “We are anxious to build a strong foundation and grow our program over time. There is a lot of strategy and skill involved in the games.’’
As is the case with other athletic programs offered by St. Ambrose through the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), members of the esports teams will be required to meet NACE eligibility and academic requirements.
St. Ambrose is currently advertising for a full-time coach to lead its program.
Responsibilities include recruiting, which Shovlain believes will differ from the way coaches in other programs operated by the school’s athletics department recruit talent to campus.
“It won’t be recruiting in a traditional sense of seeing a student-athlete compete for a high school program or in a summer-league event and beginning the process from there," he said.
“The coach will have our entire institution to sell, as we all do, in addition to the opportunity for gamers to compete at the collegiate level. We do feel this is a program that will attract the interest of a number of high school students and that our current and future student-athletes will help recruit the program.’’