The newest high-profile hire at New England College is carefully polite when asked whether his expertise, online gaming, faces any kind of generational divide.

“There are always going to be critics – ‘Is this beneficial?’ ” asked Tyrelle Appleton, the 25-year-old MBA who will be coaching NEC’s new esports team and overseeing the creation of a video-gaming arena, slated to open in January. “I give them the facts that are out there right now, the opportunities, the jobs that are available. … They come around.”

Appleton even sees this skepticism as welcome, in a way: “I look at it as a connection opportunity, a bridge-builder.”

Even if the idea of a college creating a varsity video-gaming team raises eyebrows from the silver-haired crowd, New England College is embracing what is often called esports. It has created Appleton’s position, is buying a dedicated internet connection just for gamers, will turn an existing room into a gaming-focused arena, and even plans to offer scholarships to skilled players. It is creating the gaming version of a sports program, with everything from casual play to organized clubs to intercollegiate competition, with an eye toward the growing professional circuit.

The goal is to meet the needs of teens and college-aged students who grew up with online games the way Baby Boomers grew up with TV sitcoms, as well as giving NEC a new tool in a competitive marketplace.

In Manchester, Southern New Hampshire University has the same idea. It launched an esports program this year, creating four teams with a total of 20 slots to compete online in games such as FortniteLeague of Legends and Overwatch, and also has plans to offer scholarships.

“We had an incredibly large turnout. There were 110 students for tryouts, and another 100 signed up to be involved, as commentary, or just watching and being a fan,” said Timothy Fowler, who moved from the information technology department at SNHU to become its first director of esports. “I’m working on recruiting next year, for incoming students who might not have thought of coming to SNHU until they saw we had an eports program and they could try out for it.”

These two programs are in the early stages but they’re not unique on U.S. campuses. The huge economic impact of online gaming – by some measures, the multi-billion-dollar gaming industry is bigger than Hollywood – and its cultural importance has higher education taking the field seriously. Scores of schools have set up esports programs, to the point that there’s now a National Association of Collegiate Esports, a nonprofit membership association to esports as a varsity activity. NACE has more than two dozen members, including the College of St. Joseph in Vermont, where Appleton set up an esports program while getting his masters in business administration.

“People don’t see how big it is,” said Appleton. As an example, he pointed to the National Basketball Association, which in April launched its own competitive online gaming league, reflecting the increasing overlap between sports played in the real world by humans and sports played in the online world by digital characters operated by humans.

A huge industry

Video games began in the coin-operated realm of Pong and Pac-Man and Asteroids, expanded to TVs with home consoles that started with Magnavox Odyssey – developed by Manchester’s Ralph Baer when he worked at a Nashua defense contractor – and blossomed into the console world of Atari and Sega as well as the handheld world of Gameboy.

But it is the spread of high-speed internet connections that has created the modern esports economy.

First, these connections allowed people from around the world to compete against each other in real time playing ever-more-realistic video games, usually in the form of hand-to-hand combat or as players in sports like football, basketball and soccer. Then they allowed other people to watch the games and comment at the same time, building an audience that rivals the audience of some professional sports.

This is best seen on Twitch, a live-streaming video platform for esports and gaming that has tens of millions of viewers who watch other people play video games. One result is a whole new type of celebrity: The online gamer who talks to the audience through a headset while he or she is playing. Such players can earn hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars a year.

Appleton, who is from Toronto, didn’t make millions but has experience gaming and commenting and setting up teams and a league.

“What is going to make new New England College different is me,” he said. “I don’t mean to brag, but a lot of other institutions have people that want to get esports started, but they don’t really have the experience and knowledge that I do in the gaming world.”

“A lot of my friends are pros. I’ve competed with these guys, worked with these guys, know what makes them special. I know the ins and outs of epsorts, know what specs you need,” he said. He said NEC will be the only school to have a gaming arena built on Alienware, a top-of-the-line maker of gaming PCs and hardware.

“The arena that I’m building – you walk into it, you’re going to feel like you’re crossing Area 51!” he said.

Mix and mingle

Appleton’s vision for the arena and the program extends beyond a few skilled players, creating an area for students – and faculty and staff – to mix and “chill out” within a gaming framework.

“I want to be creating opportunities. … Not just competing on a collegiate level but changing the college story, the college experience. As a student, we want to go to school but also have fun, maintain that childhood, being a kid at heart. And ask anybody what’s the number one thing that keeps them youthful – it’s games!” he said.

As for academics, both schools say gaming has benefits for a host of other programs, some obvious like game design or graphic arts, some less obvious like broadcasting.

“Sports management in the business program, they are very interested in esports as an emerging industry, are interested in doing case studies and learning more about the industry and where you can work in it,” said Fowler at SNHU.

Appleton agreed that the benefits of esports could extend far.

“You get a student who comes here for game design, plays in our arena – League of LegendsFortnight – goes on to make a great game and a million dollars,” he said.

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