Last Updated on August 21, 2022
Interview with Dr. Joey Gawrysiak
Dr. Joey Gawrysiak, head of Shenandoah University's Esports department spoke with us about the wide variety of esports tracks at SU, how experiential learning makes for exciting, hands-on degree programs, and bringing a team of his students to work help run events for the International Esports Federation in Seoul, South Korea.
About Dr. Joey Gawrysiak
Dr. Joey Gawrysiak is the Director of the Esports program at Shenandoah University. He holds a Ph.D. in Sport Management and Policy from the University of Georgia, and sits on the advisory board for the World-Wide Scholastic Esports Federation and the board of Directors for the National Association of Collegiate Esports.
How did you get involved in esports?
I’m a sport management professor by education. I got my undergrad, master’s and PHD all from the University of Georgia. My undergrad was in sports studies with an emphasis in communication. My master’s was in sports management. And my PHD was in sports management and policy. I’ve always been interested in that side of things but I’ve also been a gamer. I’ve played and coached traditional sports but I’ve also played video games forever and competed when I was in college during my undergrad years. That was very early on in the days of esports and video game competitions. It was just a bunch of my friends getting together and competing in regional tournaments and that kind of thing. It was never any big prize pools, just having a good time and playing for pride. So I always played video games but during my PHD one of my professors asked if I wanted to research video games. I thought that was an awesome idea because I wasn’t a big fan of research so I thought if I could do something that I was really interested in, I thought that could help. I did my dissertation on nothing related to video games but after I finished it, I started researching video game technology, user experiences, consumer behaviour and those kinds of things. I kept going down that path and combined those two things: sports management and traditional sports background with video games and the gaming background. As a result, competitive gaming came out of that. I’ve been researching, writing, talking and teaching about gaming and esports for about four or five years here at Shenandoah. I started the competitive esports program here back in 2018. During that same time I was writing the curriculum for esports majors which was pretty much a derivative of sports management which is what I was teaching for the first five years at SU. There are a lot of concepts that are similar in sports management and esports, but also a lot of differences. I was writing the curriculum while also having some competitive teams competing at the varsity level and eventually got the curriculum approved. That took a year and now we’ve been teaching in the esports academic side for two years here at the university and we are in our third year of competition. We are just continuing to evolve the program, develop new programs for it, work on professional development partnerships and all that kind of stuff. My background is really in sports management but I’ve combined that with my passion in gaming and turned that into esports as SU.
Is esports on its way to being another mainstream sport like the NFL or NBA or will it stay something separate and different?
It’s hard to say Tim. Who the hell knows? If I knew that I could probably make a lot of money but my crystal ball is a little cloudier than crystal. I certainly think it has the opportunity to do that only because if you look at what kids are doing these days they are playing many more video games than they are playing traditional sports. Even traditional sports are worried about the consumer behaviour and the age and demographics that they are attracting. In major league baseball, the average age of a viewer is fifty five years old. They aren’t reaching that younger generation and esports is kind of a way to do that. I think esports certainly has the opportunity to be the next NBA, NFL or MLB. It’s just a very different type of competition than traditional sports but so is anything. Back at the turn of the 20th century, it was baseball, horse racing and boxing that were popular and now its baseball, football and basketball. One hundred years from now it will probably be esports, something and something. Maybe it will be drone racing or battle bots. There’s no telling but it certainly has the opportunity to get to that level.
So cool. I can’t wait for that! Can you tell me about the skills and experiences that have helped you succeed in the esports industry or that you would emphasize to people trying to get into the industry?
Yes, soft skills. I think soft skills are incredibly important as they are in other areas. Being able to have a conversation, public speaking, communication, teamwork and adaptability. I’ve talked to other people in esports as well as traditional sports and sports management. It’s hard work, it’s long hours, nights and weekends. It’s entertainment, so you’ve got to work those times when people are willing to be entertained and not during the normal nine to five time. It’s a lot of hard work and commitment that comes into the esports industry and you’ve got to be willing to work those long hours, wear multiple hats to take on multiple tasks at a time. You’ve got to be comfortable being uncomfortable and willing to adapt and adjust. I think those are critically important skills to be successful in esports or any kind of entertainment industry: to work as a team, function as one to achieve a goal and adapt. Because something is going to go wrong. No matter how much planning you do in an event, something is going to go wrong. So being able to adjust on the fly and have contingency plans are really important. That’s what I would tap as the most important skills: hard work, teamwork, communication and adaptability, for success in esports.
Would you tell us a little about GHS Esports Solutions which you co-founded?
Yes, so GHS is a consulting firm that we started with some colleagues of mine back in 2019. The focus of that is to help other people either at universities or in the education space or in the private sector and commercial space to start esports programs whether that be academically or on the competitive side. It could be a PC cafe that they want to open up for commercial enterprise reasons. We’ve worked with companies in the US and Canada to establish esports related ventures, mostly on the academic side at this point but we’ve also helped a couple of them get started on ideas for commercial enterprises. We just wanted to offer our services and knowledge for those trying to get into the esports space at multiple levels, and kind of be a go-to to help them get started and hear their ideas. We can see their space, look at their technology they have, tell them how to hook and set things up. On the education side, we would look at what curriculum would best benefit students and make sense at their university or college. That’s what GHS is right now. We’re evolving that to continue looking at the education space, even looking at possible accreditation for academic esports programs. We are kind of venturing into that side of things. We are seeing more and more programs get started as you alluded to, but the problem is that a lot of schools don’t have the resources to set it up or the qualified faculty to teach in these programs. We want to make sure that as more and more programs start, they are programs that are set up in a way that provide students the experience that they are expecting and preparing them adequately to enter esports on the professional side as a career or at least teaching them proper ways, learning through esports and not setting them up for failure upon graduation.
Right, so would that mean that somebody considering an esports degree at a particular university could look at whether it’s accredited to determine the quality of the program?
Exactly. That’s the way that traditional education pedagogy has gone. It’s a logical step for esports at some point. We just want to help that space move forward.
In the current year and moment in time, do you have any advice for students who are trying to choose an esports program, or courses that are going to be useful, beneficial and relevant in the industry?
This is what I tell students when they come to visit us, “Do your homework.” They need to pick the program that makes sense for them, that offers the education and experience that they need and want to get to the next level. Every school does it differently. What we do at SU is going to be different than how Harrisburg University has their esports curriculum set up or that Caldwell has theirs set up, or Northwood, or UCI or Boise State. Students need to see what makes sense for them, but what they can learn from any program is experiential learning. They need to get themselves involved in the broadcasting, content creating and running events. They aren’t just in the classroom learning about it or watching a video, they are out in the field experiencing it. There is no substitute for that. Look for the place that makes sense for you, that helps you grow and get to the next step. But also look for a place that offers experiences that go beyond the classroom.
Does Shenandoah University’s esports department place a strong emphasis on experiential learning and how does that compare with some of the other programs out there?
It’s definitely embedded in our curriculum . That has been a huge focus for us. That doesn’t only come from my own personal belief on experiential learning, it comes from our esports advisory board that we talk to in the industry. We’ll send out the curriculum and ask what they think students should do and what skills they should have by the time they graduate to prepare them for the esports industry. Universally they said two things, teach an esports management class and make sure you have as much experiential and practical learning experience as possible. We agreed and now we have an esports management class which they run events in, which is very practical, but we also require experiential learning as part of the curriculum and an internship. Both of those are required for them to graduate with a degree. Every semester we have a number of students out in the field, either in the local community, helping us in the campus or doing things online remotely. esports can be done online remotely in a large capacity. So we have them building their portfolio and doing the experiences as part of the curriculum. I think we require more than any other program that I know of, on the experiential and practical side to go with the classroom learning. So it’s a personal philosophy and it’s also what we heard from industry professionals in terms of what they think would be good for students to get before they graduate. So that’s why we do it the way we do it.
Could touch on some of those things your students have done either while they were students or maybe after graduating in the industry?
We haven’t had many graduates because this is only our second year, but our first graduate graduated in December of last year, a couple of months ago. He was already a student as SU and switched into the esports major when we established it. He was able to wrap up his degree in December only a semester after his four year degree. He is currently working at Independence Community College as their esports Director, starting that program from scratch. So we’re batting at one hundred percent when it comes to placing our graduates into esports jobs. We know we aren’t going to continue at that level but we hope our students continue to get those opportunities by the time they graduate. They will get those opportunities because of what they are doing here with the experiential learning such as running events. That same student ran a couple of events while he was here with Call of Duty and Rocket League. We would max out our capacity in the esports arena on campus for a completely student run event. He ran that event to gain the experience to get to the next level. He’s also helped find these sponsorships and worked on budget issues. I take on students every semester for work study positions to handle budget and partnership meetings, establishing relationships with outside companies. So our students are running events on campus and working events in the field. We took students to South Korea back in 2019 before COVID hit to run the esports International Federation World Championships. We took ten students to Seoul, South Korea to volunteer at an event. That was a great experience. We also had eight students work at the home stand of the Washington Justice which is a professional Overwatch team in D.C. We took them there to work the home stand so they could work the esports events. Then two months later, COVID hit so we had to stop doing that. But we’ve been able to continue working with outside companies, running things virtually and online for their internship experience and experiential learning side. We’ve done a couple high profile things and some things online but certainly our students have been able to make a name for themselves by working these things. So far the graduation rate has been great in terms of placing people in the industry. We are looking forward to seeing what that looks like going forward with our first full batch of graduates in two years from now.
It really sounds like an exciting time to get into esports where the path from entry-level to top tier positions is likely shorter now than it will be in the future. I wonder if you could tell me how esports has changed since the time you have been involved. I know that it’s a rapidly changing industry.
It shifts and moves very very quickly. For the most part at the professional level, since I’ve been involved, what’s great is that I’ve seen more franchise based teams and leagues being established at the pro level. Now they are city based instead of nebulous clubs that aren’t based in a certain city. So seeing the Overwatch league, League of Legends North American league and Call of Duty be franchise based with teams like Washington Justice, Atlanta Rain, San Francisco Shock, Philly Fusion: you have teams that are based in cities which helps you establish a fanbase that can cheer for a city instead of a nebulous organization that they don’t have any connection to. So I really like that idea and model because it mirrors traditional sports in the US and makes sense for a lot of consumers. At the educational level and collegiate level, there is huge growth and expansion since I’ve been involved in the past three or four years where schools are offering scholarships and academic programs. The number of schools offering varsity competitions, governing bodies and organizations popping up to try and structure the space a little has grown and shifted over the years. The high school level has done the same thing where it has grown. That is where I’ve seen a lot of quick growth, the collegiate and high school level getting competitive teams and finding opportunities for students to come together, compete and be part of something bigger, whereas before maybe they didn’t have anything like this. Maybe they weren’t an athlete that was coordinated or tall enough to belong to a basketball or football team. But this gives them a place and a team to be a part of and schools are really receptive to that.
What do you expect for the future? Do you see trends that you think will continue, looking twenty years down the road, stuff that you are excited to see come to fruition?
I’ll give you a simple explanation, VR. I am excited for what VR has to offer for esports. At some point we are going to get more accessibility for virtual reality and there will be more VR esports. They will also be more mobile. The sedentary lifestyle that comes with traditional esports sitting at a desk, table or console: that is going to be removed. We are going to get more physicality and movement that will go along with virtual reality and competition in the virtual space. So I think at some point that will happen. I think streaming and content creation, the interactive nature of Twitch and Youtube are going to continue to grow because that is the way the current generation continues to consume their entertainment, through those platforms. It’s not through traditional ESPN or print media which is very passive, it’s more interactive and engaging. They live in the world of social media, TikTok, memes, Instagram and Twitter. So I think social media and these ten to twelve minute clips, episodes and content related to gaming are going to continue to grow amongst the younger generation. We’ll see online esports continue to be a thing but it will be streamed. It won’t be on cable necessarily like ESPN, ABC or Disney. It will be on Twitch, Youtube and those kinds of platforms. Those will continue to grow because that is where consumption is going for the esports. I also think mobile gaming will get bigger because they are extremely prevalent around the world. Games are now being created to be on mobile platforms. We will see more competition and more people get involved in esports on that level because of the lower barrier to entry. It’s much more accessible than a three thousand dollar gaming computer. A lot of schools can’t afford one let alone six or seven, three thousand dollar gaming computers. But their students have cell phones and they can compete on mobile devices. So I think the mobile and VR landscape will continue to evolve and grow. And I think the streaming and content creation will grow from a consumer behaviour perspective. So those are kind of the trends I see and it’s going to grow within education. Every high school and college is going to need an esports coach and director as the games continue to grow and evolve. Scholarships will continue to grow, competitions will get bigger and start to include D1 schools. Those bigger names that you are used to seeing for football, baseball or basketball will get more into esports. That brand recognition will be there and it will be a new offering you’ll start to see in schools.
Would you break down for us the different esports degrees offered at SU and which students would find them to be a good fit?
Sure. We’ve got a lot of offerings. We’ve got six or seven different opportunities and we’re continuing to grow those. We are also looking at a couple new ones. We have the most offerings of any academic program in the world right now. And I say that confidently because I just wrote a research paper that is under review where we took an index and analyzed all the academic programs in the world for esports and there are about ninety five right now that are being offered. And when I say academic program I mean beyond one class. So certificates, concentrations, minors and majors. At Shenandoah there are two different tracks, ‘management’ and ‘media and communication’. So students can choose if they want to focus on the business side or more on the media and communication side of esports. Then we have an esports minor, and esports concentration out of our business school and traditional BBA. We’ve also got an MBA concentration, so those looking at graduate degrees can get an MBA concentration in esports management. Then we’ve got some certificates. We’ve got an online graduate certification which is an advanced certificate for four courses. We have an undergraduate certificate that consists of five classes. Then we have an esports coaching certificate that consists of three classes. All of those can be done completely online so students can kind of choose where they want to focus on, where their interests are, what their career aspirations might be and tailor their educational experiences for what makes the most sense, whether that means majoring, minoring or doing a certificate. It’s about where the student wants to be and we’re just that bridge. We just want to offer as many opportunities to students as we can, to tailor to their degree and what makes the most sense for them, but base it still in experiences while they are getting their degree here.
That is really exciting, a lot going on. I can imagine that a student interested in esports but not quite sure which direction to take it would do well to check you guys out and all the different concentrations, certificates and degrees in esports.
It could be a little overwhelming for students. It’s overwhelming for me, but that’s exactly why we have the offerings. A student that comes in here may like the idea of esports and want to work in it, but they don’t know where or how. That’s when we have the conversation with them and say, “Here are the opportunities, why don’t we try a lot of different things.” That’s why we have the core esports major, to provide that breadth of understanding of the esports ecosystem. Then that gives the student time to think about what makes the most sense to them and where their passion is. Then we can start to get more in depth when they get into their junior or senior year, focusing either on the event management, revenue generation and marketing side or the broadcast, communication, content creation and videography side of things. We want to reach students where they are, provide them lots of opportunities, but give them time to develop their passion while they’re here, to give them all the different choices. Again, it can be overwhelming but we work very closely and engage with our students on a daily basis with what they want to do and how to be successful when they graduate.
How do you stay on top of everything that is going on in the esports world? Are their resources or podcasts that you’d recommend?
Yes there are a couple of great online resources that are free. esports Insider and the esports Observer which is part of the Sports Business Journal. Those are the best that I’ve found for keeping up with the professional industry in particular. As far as the collegiate and high school space it’s tough. It’s all about competition and what’s going on in those spaces. Through Twitch and YouTube, just checking out some of the major players in the space like NACE, NACEF, Play Versus, ECAC and NECC. These are some of the bigger players in the space so for people trying to keep up, it involves keeping up with their Twitter, YouTube and Twitch presences online.