EDINBORO – There were some people that were unhappy with Chris Rhodes for starting up an esports program at Edinboro University.
"When we announced it, I took a lot of flack," Rhodes said. "People were like, ‘How could you, as an athlete?' – this, that and the other thing. 'What you did in your career, you're a coach, how can you do this?'
"Well, it’s very easy. To me, it’s not a big deal. But when you’re close-minded, then that’s what you think."
Rhodes now lives in two worlds that don't always see eye to eye.
On the one hand, he is heavily involved in what people consider a traditional sport, serving as the head coach for Edinboro's swimming team. He was also an all-American swimmer when he competed for Edinboro as an undergraduate.
And now he is the director of the Edinboro University esports program.
And esports is still a target of derision by some people.
"Just because you’re not exerting yourself in a traditional format, people think, ‘Oh my gosh, this isn’t a sport,' " Rhodes said. "I personally believe that there’s only that type of relationship because it’s called 'esports.' If it was e-gaming, or electronic-, I don’t know, something else ..."
'Stigma ... that's gone'
Video games are still considered – by some – to be a pursuit of the lazy and the idle.
However, the way Rhodes sees it, that's not the case with esports. If a gamer wants to be successful, it takes commitment, it takes motivation, it takes discipline. It takes hours and hours of practice daily. It has that in common with traditional athletics.
"I think the stigma of being in the basement, drinking Mountain Dew and eating Cheetos – that’s gone," Rhodes said. "That’s what (esports) does, it kind of gets away from that aspect and it looks at it like this is something different."
Also, in several esports games, the difference between winning and losing will depend on the teamwork and chemistry of the players. Any coach of a traditional sports team can attest to how valuable those attributes are.
"Within esports, you need communication," Rhodes said. "You can't have people all the time on the mic screaming and yelling. If you're out on the basketball court and you act like that, things aren’t going to get done. You need to be able to communicate, to work well with others."
There's also a notion that esports will be a drain on resources that can be used for traditional sports.
Rhodes, instead, foresees a boon for Edinboro as the school attracts a whole new type of student-athlete.
"The other complaint that I hear is, ‘How can you give scholarships to these guys?’ " he said.
"Well, they have a skill. And, we want them to come to Edinboro and help them master that skill. It's no different than if you’re a football player, or a swimmer, into music, an art student, academic student, biologist, whatever. We want to get the better people. And in order to do that: scholarships."
'Applications went up'
Esports also has some natural tie-ins with Edinboro's curriculum, which includes concentrations in areas such as Game & Virtual World Development; Digital Media Production; and Sports & Recreation Management.
"The other thing that (esports) does is it opens up so many different avenues in the industry," Rhodes said. "It’s not just gaming. It’s sports marketing, sports management, the business side of it, the psychological side of it."
The esports program certainly hasn't hurt the university's push for improved enrollment so far.
"In talking with our admissions department our applications went up 30 percent," Rhodes said. "To me, I think that’s a pretty good number."
Rhodes feels that esports can provide similar benefits at the high school level as well.
"I’ve met with a lot of superintendents from Erie County, Crawford County," he said. "And a lot of the superintendents that I’ve spoken with about this, their board members are like ‘I don’t know.’ But their board members, they're an older generation usually, they don’t understand it.
"These superintendents are looking at esports as a way to get people excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). They’re looking at this as a way to get students more involved in their curriculum, more involved in their school district."
Mainly, esports will give more people a chance to be a part of something.
There will always be people who have the drive to compete in physical activities. But there are other people who either aren't interested or aren't able.
Esports opens up an avenue for some of them to compete in a new way, to be the best they can at something – to win.
"When you watch these (esports) tournaments now, and the excitement they bring," Rhodes said. "If you watch Division I wrestling, and when it gets down to one champion, and that exhilaration, the people following it, the coaching.
"Now, I’m certainly not going to say that our 'League of Legends' guys is the same kind of athlete as our 184-pounder. But, there are similarities."