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Kent State-Salem eSports beginning to snowball

Some members of the Kent State-Salem eSports program include (from left) Rylie Zeigler, Brittany Siembieda, Dominic Spiker, Thomas Siembida, Patricia Beltran (seated), president Catherine Cannon and Jared Simmons. Students from Kent State-East Liverpool are allowed to be part of the program. (Submitted photo)

SALEM — There aren’t many opportunities for a small regional campus sports program to take on the big boys but the Kent State-Salem eSports program has found a way to do so.

“They’ve played Virginia Tech, University of Massachusetts, Villanova,” Director of KSU-Salem eSports team and KSU eSports founder Steven Toepfer said. “These are big Division I programs.”

KSU-Salem’s eSports program is still in its infancy, having been established as a scholarship activity in 2018. The program offers two varsity teams. The first is for the game Overwatch, a team-based first-person shooter. That team competed in the fall of 2018 and 2019. Hearthstone, a digital turn-based card game, came on board in 2019 as a varsity team.

The KSU-Salem eSports program currently offers six $500 scholarships that can be used up to four years. Tryouts are held to determine scholarship recipients. KSU-East Liverpool campus members are also allowed to be a part of the KSU-Salem eSports program.

“Students are doing this anyway, why not bring them into the fold and let them represent the university and feel proud to do that just like an athlete?” Toepfer said.

The pride is a real thing. When the program got started there was a new energy that excited students competing in a inter-collegiate event for their campus.

Toepfer, who was born in Manhattan and raised in Poughkeepsie, New York, knows this himself as he was a Division I athlete in track and cross country at the University of Maryland and University of Connecticut.

“I never have seen a bunch of students so proud of becoming a varsity member,” Toepfer said. “Not only did they get scholarships, but they got jerseys. This is going to sound goofy, but they love those jerseys because those are the same jerseys they put on at every Kent campus. It made them feel like they were a part of the university.”

But the launch of this program has not been perfect. Like any fledgling organization, there are ups and downs. Toepfer said the first year was largely positive and the students stayed enthusiastic.

The second year hasn’t been so good. A losing streak set in and it damaged the team’s spirit.

“In the game and immediately following the game, they don’t care who they played all they know is they lost,” Toepfer said. “It was getting harder over time to keep the morale up.”

A large part of this comes down to time constraints of the students and how KSU-Salem’s teams are matched up with opponents.

“One of the issues I have is the matching of schools is not perfect,” Toepfer said. “That is what was happening to our poor little Salem team. We struggle with schedules. Our students are different because a lot of them work, go to school full-time and have families. They don’t practice as much. It’s not just that the schools have bigger name recognition, it’s that they have gaming arenas (a dedicated area for gaming) at their schools and they practice five days a week.”

At Kent State’s main campus, for example, Toepfer says for the game Overwatch they have one varsity team and at least three jayvee teams. Those teams practice six days a week in their own arena space and are very organized.

“At the Salem campus it’s hard to do that,” Toepfer said.

KSU-Salem’s teams play under the collegiate eSports organization Tespa. There’s no charge to be a member but the competition is fierce. Another organization was considered (the National Association of Collegiate eSports), but that group wanted $2,500 a year to be a member.

“Tespa have free leagues that are so good, it doesn’t make sense to pay for the National Association of Collegiate eSports membership,” Toepfer said.

The KSU eSports team faces significant funding hurdles to keep up with its opponents but it has so far taken it in stride. Toepfer said the main campus eSports annual budget is around $115,000 and said that doesn’t go a long way. It’s much less at regional campuses.

“One fundraiser was selling candles,” Toepfer said. “They came to me with that idea and I told them ‘You’re not going to sell five candles.’ They proved me wrong. They made hundreds of dollars selling candles.”

Toepfer said as far as regional campuses are concerned fundraising is a key to keeping the program going.

“The budgets are tighter at regionals,” Toepfer said. “If they want new equipment they have to fundraise.”

Toepfer said he recently went to a meeting at the Columbiana County Career and Technical Center about the possibility of an eSports program coming online there.

“It’s probably going to happen next year and they have better funding than we do,” Toepfer said.

Toepfer estimates the group of varsity players at Salem’s campus to be around 11 or 12 hardcore players with five or 10 who float around. One of the regular players is from the East Liverpool campus.

eSports notes

• Currently the KSU-Salem jerseys do not have the word Salem appearing on jersey. Toepfer is working with a new jersey manufacturer and wants ‘Salem’ to be included on the shoulder in the future.

• Tespa offers significant cash prizes in its competitions. While KSU Salem has not come close to winning any prize money, the main campus Hearthstone team recently had a high finish. The winning team of the Tespa Hearthstone competition got $10,000 each for the three team members and $30,000 for the university.

• Toepfer said there have been behind the scenes discussions with the Mid-American Conference to establish a corporation to run an eSports league featuring all the schools in the league. The school presidents all voted to approve this matter and it may be a reality within one or two years.

• Toepfer thinks that eSports should not be run under the umbrella of athletics, but Kent State athletic director Joel Nielson expressed interest about housing the programs under athletics. What is problematic about that is Title IX restrictions and prize money which would run afoul of the amateurism model of the NCAA, according to Toepfer.

• Tespa suspended its spring seasons because of the coronavirus and logistics issues with campus players playing at home.

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