The evolution of college esports since 2014 has been nothing short of astonishing. Starting as tournaments that were run by students, for students, and completely online, college esports has progressed to large-scale, nationwide tournaments culminating with in-person events boasting of massive scholarship prize pools. College esports is at its highest peak, but it still has a long way to go in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. As the former Collegiate Lead for Generation Esports and starting my ninth season coaching at the collegiate level, this year with Missouri Western State University for League of Legends, I had the opportunity to talk to another distinguished pioneer in the college space, Sergio “Physix” Brack, co-founder of the College Call of Duty League and newly minted Director of Esports at the University of Maryland.
Howard: In regards to your new position at Maryland, what made the offer so lucrative that you decided to move a thousand miles across the country to jump at the opportunity?
Sergio: A big portion of what I think is hindering collegiate right now is private schools that are putting added stress onto coaches and directors to hit a recruitment number with predatory financial figures in place. This stress began to hit me heavily at my previous institution to the point where I almost wanted to quit doing collegiate esports. UMD offered me a better comparative salary, a bigger, more diverse school, and the opportunity to put external recruitment on hold, which was 99% of my job before, and being able to focus directly on student involvement and engagement within esports.
Discussion: A college would never consider having a one-star traditional sports athlete on roster just to hit a minimum recruitment number at a Division 1 program, let alone on scholarship. This is the traditional sports equivalent of having an iron or bronze player on scholarship at a “varsity” program, which happens all too often and is considered normal in esports to hit the bottom line and prove ROI. This causes a dip in program performance, player development, and overall experience for fans, players, coaches, and ultimately, the student part of student-athlete.
Howard: What is the structure of Maryland’s program in terms of staffing and where esports is housed?
Sergio: UMD Esports is housed within the Division of Student Affairs in Recreation and Wellness. As for now, we have a robust student employment model for roles like broadcasting and center operations. Full-time staff members include myself as the Director of Esports and Vania McBean as the Associate Director of IT and Esports.
Howard: How sustainable is this model at other major universities across traditional powerhouse conferences?
Sergio: Our model is one that is not finite. One of the things that attracted me to UMD in comparison to other D1 entities is the simple fact that the staff on hand was willing to learn and to evolve esports every step of the way, including staffing structure. This is something that we want to reevaluate every few years to fit what we need to improve our program at every level.
Discussion: Having been at five different colleges in my nine years of collegiate, I have seen the full spectrum of models from student orgs to fully-funded programs under athletics, and the largest issue has always been a lack of support when it comes to player development. By trade, I am a League of Legends coach. It’s my true passion and where my knowledge is. When tasked to lead previous programs, I was in charge of multiple teams across the board. The “coach.” While I was able to recruit amazing players who were able to step up, our NJCAAE national championship Rainbow 6 team had little to no coaching and development from myself outside of communication guidance, a practice structure, and academic assistance. Ask me during our championship run how to set up a Coastline defense in the current R6 meta, and I would have said “Tachanka in Cool Vibes and pray?”. The point is that staffing is a major issue at most colleges, and Maryland has clearly learned from others to create an environment and structure that makes sense on paper and in practice.
Howard: How does Maryland’s structure shape the future for the next several years of esports?
Brack: Our goal is to show other Power 5 institutions that you can be well-rounded in many aspects of collegiate esports and don’t have to limit yourself to just one aspect. Some D1 programs excel at broadcasting, some excel at competition, some excel at esports career pipelines. UMD wants to do it all.
Discussion: Sergio hits it on the head once again. A balanced attack is a solid approach for a sustainable model at the college level, providing students opportunities to learn, further their skills, and network with others, all while competing and doing what they love.
Howard: Work-life balance is a major point of contention in college esports. Most directors are overworked, underpaid, and it’s considered normal. Do you think this position and structure helps to alleviate those issues?
Brack: This position allows much more flexibility and less pressure to hit a recruitment metric that doesn’t exist yet at this institution. Also the amount of trust the institution has for me to admit, “We know nothing, that’s why we hired you,” while also giving me resources within the department to make the program the best it can be is worth every working hour. Directors and head coaches are often alienated from the rest of the institution as well, but UMD and the department of Recreation and Wellness has already given me beautiful work relationships that I never thought I would have at an institution. There’s trust, advancement opportunity, priority of work-life balance, and adaptability.
Howard: How does this structure help the students within the program, and how will it transform the student experience over the next few years?
Brack: Starting out, this structure allows us to completely focus on student engagement and enjoyment within the program. Furthermore, having a student-centric staffing structure allows students to choose esports over having to work a part-time job they don’t enjoy while also providing some of them their first experience working in esports. We have unprecedented paid roles for our program like photography and videography that students will be able to take with them forever on their journeys after college, whether it be in esports or in other ventures. Everything we do is centered around the engagement of our students while also making sure we are the most well-rounded program in the country.
Discussion: SAY. IT. LOUDER. “Student-centric staffing structure” is a phrase that EVERY school should be saying.
As a whole, Maryland is taking the first steps in creating a scholastic esports utopia: the program is for students, by students, which brings us back to the root of college esports but is now powered by an administration who gets it. No bottom line. No ROI pressure. Just an investment in the student-athlete for a brighter future.