Ray Shovlain studied the idea for about a year.
The more St. Ambrose University’s long-time athletic director looked at it, the more he liked it.
He finally pitched the idea to his superiors, and it became a done deal earlier this year. St. Ambrose is developing a team in perhaps the fastest-growing competitive endeavor in the world: esports.
“It’s very unique compared to the traditional sports that everybody is used to, but there’s just an unbelievable amount of interest in it,’’ Shovlain said.
St. Ambrose will begin competition at the start of the next school year and will have both a fall and spring season in the new sport. It will compete in two different video games: Overwatch and League of Legends.
Its team will be sanctioned by the National Association of Collegiate Esports, or NACE, a Kansas City-based organization that already has more than 70 members, including Grand View and Morningside in Iowa and Illinois Wesleyan, Illinois College and Robert Morris College in Illinois.
Josh Sides, a 29-year-old North Carolina native, has been hired to coach the St. Ambrose team and recruit the school’s first crop of new players.
Sides hasn’t competed in collegiate esports himself simply because it didn’t exist when he was a student at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
“I come from corporate culture,’’ he said. “I’ve done leadership training my entire life. I’m just a big fan of esports in general. I basically found the scene when I was in college. It hadn’t really fleshed out and developed over here until my junior year in college, so I missed out on the collegiate opportunities, but I’m happy to be getting back into it.’’
He says he didn't know there were coaching opportunities in the sport until he saw St. Ambrose advertising for the position on the NACE website.
“I saw their posting … and I reached out to Coach Ray,’’ Sides said. “I put in my application. I got called in to interview and must have said something right.’’
Sides currently is trying to recruit players, primarily from the high school esports leagues that have popped up around the country. He also fielded numerous inquiries from current St. Ambrose students but hopes to bring in 15 recruits this fall.
St. Ambrose is planning a 6-player varsity Overwatch team, a 5-player varsity League of Legends team and a 5-player junior varsity League of Legends team.
In the future, Sides thinks the program easily could grow to include 50 to 60 students, and it could add other games, such as Counter-Strike, Rocket League and Fortnite.
The school is offering scholarships that are competitive with other esports programs around the country and comparable to what it already is giving to athletes in mainstream sports, such as baseball, basketball and football.
Shovlain said the primary costs for such a program go into an esports “arena," complete with state-of-the-art computer equipment. The international studies room in Cosgrove Hall will be renovated for that purpose at the conclusion of this school year.
Unlike other sports, there are no travel expenses attached to esports unless teams opt to attend tournaments elsewhere. All regular-season matches are contested via the internet.
“People can watch it online,’’ Sides said. “People can watch it in person. The spectator aspect of esports is huge.
“All of our matches will be live and commentated on Twitch.tv, so people will be able to follow it.’’
Shovlain said he thinks a viewing area could be set up in the Rogalski Center for students to watch the Fighting Bees’ esports matches.
He said the motivation for starting an esports program is much the same as it was for a bowling team, swimming and diving teams, lacrosse, competitive dance and a marching band, all of which have been added to the university’s offerings in recent years.
“Like the other things we’ve added, this gives our students one more reason to come to St. Ambrose,’’ he said.