Construction for a robust student gaming center is underway and could set standards for collegiate gaming programs.
Two seniors in industrial design, Ryan Helfers and Mitch Garrett, along with other dedicated students, faculty and staff, have been recruited by Iowa State Recreational Services to design a “recreational gaming space,” furnished with gaming PCs, consoles and board games.
This project accompanies the recent establishment of an esports intramural and the expansion of a local gaming tournament, all of which signal a larger shift towards the incorporation of esports at Iowa State.
The gaming space, which will replace two squash ball courts in Beyer Hall, may be completed as early as Fall 2020 and is intended to be a facility unlike any other on any campus.
Helfers said only three large universities — Utah, UC Irvine and Miami University — have gaming facilities as robust as what he and Garrett envision for Iowa State, and all of them are fairly homogeneous in presentation.
"Every single facility that we’ve looked at has essentially been a computer lab with gaming computers,” Helfers said. “This is not the first esports space on a campus, but this is going to be the first of its kind.”
Developing a Controller Environment
Helfers may be right. Virtual 3D models of the space, or renders, reveal a unique two-floor design; TVs and monitors for console and PC gamers line the walls of the lower floor.
A checkout desk to the right of the entrance allows players to choose the games or accessories they want to use. Upstairs, beanbag chairs and couches sit opposite two arcade cabinets and shelves of board and card games. Across from a balcony overlooking the lower floor, a projector screen streams live game feeds to onlookers.
“We wanted to encapsulate all different types of gaming — board games, card games, role playing games — anything of the sort,” Garrett said. “We want to make that sure it’s all-inclusive.”
Some may see issues arising with the facility's concepts, but Helfers and Garrett have been meticulous in their design choices.
One unique portion of Garrett’s and Helfers’ renders is the inclusion of a broadcasting booth. Designed with the help of computer science senior Tanner Holte, the esports chair for the Game Renegades and a fledgling esports commentator, the booth is furnished with microphones and streaming equipment rather than consoles and controllers.
Though primarily for those who would rather commentate than play, the broadcasting booth also adheres to the all-inclusive nature of the facility.
Helfers said Iowa State Recreational Services sees the booth as a major outreach opportunity, with the possibility of incorporating live commentary into other sporting events like hockey matches and volleyball games becoming very likely.
The development of the space is tied to what Vlastaras referred to as a “three pillar” plan, which outlines what parts of Iowa State gaming and esports can serve.
The three enumerated pillars are recreational gamers, competitive gamers and academic and research interests in gaming, all of which Helfers and Garrett believe the space will cater to in some way.
The Larger Design
Helfers and Garrett have been involved in Iowa State’s esports developments since last October, and have helped implement several preliminary measures including a survey of student interest, the rebranding of the Game Renegades club and the announcement of the brand-new Rocket League Intramural.
Nathan Pick, an intramural coordinator for Iowa State Recreational Services, had seen mentions of esport intramurals for the past year or two in emails from the National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association, a collegiate recreation organization. But at a national intramural convention in February, Pick said he realized that collegiate esports were “coming whether you like it or not.”
Pick said at around the same time he was attending the conference, the Game Renegades officially changed its affiliation, pivoting from being a standalone student organization to becoming a recognized varsity sport club.
After Thomas Owens, an intramural referee and member of the Renegades, said he asked Pick if he could take time off from work in order to make a practice session with the Renegades, Pick said he asked Owens and other members of the team to meet and discuss the possibility of an esports intramural.
After pitching competitive games like Rainbow Six: Siege, Super Smash Brothers, Dota 2 and several other entries, the game Rocket League was selected.
For Garrett, Rocket League was a logical choice: for many, its premise is simple and easy to understand, but it has a high skill ceiling for competitive play. The game is supported on a variety of platforms for multiple types of players, and its resemblance to soccer makes it easier to market as an intramural. An aspect Pick found particularly important was team sizes — Rocket League only requires three players to create a team, while games like League of Legends or Overwatch require five and six players respectively.
The intramural sign-up launched during spring break and had over 450 students sign up during its week-and-a-half-long period — three times what Helfers and Garrett said they were hoping for. Rocket League’s success has helped solidify the overall viability of esports at Iowa States,
“Because Rocket League has done so well in such short time, it has set an example. All it means is that we’re going to be doing more esports intramurals along the way,” Helfers said.
While the construction of the gaming space is a major part of Vlastaras’ plan, it is just one piece of the puzzle. Another major component is the Open LAN event, which Helfers, Garrett, and the Game Renegades have transformed from a local gathering into a major collegiate esports event.
A series of gaming tournaments fronted by the Game Renegades, Open LAN previously only involved Iowa State students and drew perhaps 100 participants every year, by Helfers’ estimate. However, under the direction of Helfers and Garrett, 2019’s Open LAN became an intercollegiate, multi-tournament event, hosting 13 teams from other big-name schools like UW-Madison, DePaul, Minnesota, Kansas State, and the University of Iowa. Open LAN took place on April 20 at Howe Hall, and hosted around 400 attendees in total.
Holte and Garrett both said that the event did not run perfectly. Issues with Iowa State’s internet provider caused match delays, and the event’s tight schedule exhausted some competitors. Despite this, Garrett said the event overall went very well.
The event was even backed by companies like RedBull and Discord, and was supported by collegiate esports organizations Tespa and, notably, the American Video Game League (AVGL).
Every year, the AVGL hosts April Anarchy, a March-Madness style tournament for the popular first-person shooter CounterStrike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). According to a press release from Globe Newswire, April Anarchy is “the largest Spring Collegiate esports event in North America,” and now, the AVGL has made Open LAN’s CS:GO competition one of the qualifying events for April Anarchy.
This integration elevates Open LAN as an event, boosting its legitimacy in the esports community.
“You can kind of think of us as the Big 12 Tournament that then gets you the automatic qualifier into the Big Show,” Helfers said.
CS:GO wasn’t the only tournament to receive validation from the esports community.
“Every one of our individual tournaments was recognized by the developer,” Holte said. The only exception being the Rainbow Six: Siege tournament, which instead received recognition from the Collegiate Esports Association.
Strategies and Guides
While the new prospects of esports are eye-catching, there are some concerns about the new gaming space enabling addiction, or promoting more aggressive behaviors among certain students.
Douglas Gentile, a psychology professor at Iowa State with a speciality in media effects, released an analysis in 2007 regarding violent games. Gentile’s study found “violent video games appear to be excellent teachers of aggression,” encouraging hostile and argumentative behaviors in students.
However, there are benefits to gaming as well.
Gentile’s study also noted that video games are “excellent teachers ... of educational content.” Other studies cited within an article published in American Psychologist in 2013 found that certain video games are associated with better spatial skills, problem-solving abilities, enhanced creativity and more cooperative behavior.
Helfers and Garrett are aware of the concerns some may have about the gaming space.
“We want this space to be an addition to someone’s lifestyle," Garrett said. “We don’t want this to replace anything else.”
That’s why the two have worked with Larysa Nadolny, an associate professor in the School of Education with a speciality in game-based learning.
Nadolny has begun assembling a team of faculty from throughout Iowa State, including Gentile, to “monitor, assess and help the students that are struggling with negative gaming behaviors.”
Nadolny sees the formalization of gaming on Iowa State as an opportunity to help students that may be struggling with addiction.
“We can address that and support the students in the ways ... that we wouldn’t have been able to if they weren’t a part of those spaces,” Nadolny said.
The Next Stage
While Helfers and Garrett have already taken strides to introduce esports to Iowa State, there is still plenty of work to be done for Iowa State’s esports community.
One goal, referred to by Helfers as the “pipeline dream,” is to incorporate esports-based scholarships, which Holte notes is already being done at schools such as Robert Morris University. Pick sees the esports venture as a long-term one, with more than five to eight years of intramural esports coming.
Helfers and Garrett see more intramural esports appearing soon, and Holte believes that with the success of this year’s Open LAN, the competition could be expanded into a two-day event.
“We want other schools to look at us as an example,” Garrett said.