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OFFICE HOURS | Professor Walker White Discusses eSports and Gaming (Part 2)

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For our first installment of “Office Hours,” a series of interviews with prominent personalities on Cornell’s campus, Sunspots writer Bruno Avritzer sat down for a chat with Computer Science Professor Walker White, Director of the Cornell Game Design Initiative. In the interview below, which has been edited for clarity, White shares his thoughts on why gaming may or may not be viable as a college sport. Part 1 of this interview can be read here.

 

One thing I want to touch on a little bit is how collegiate sports is developing. Blizzard is really pushing TESPA (Collegiate eSports) pretty hard.

Yeah.

But I’m not sure how successful that is. I feel like for a long time eSports is going to be secondary to regular sports, even here at Cornell which is part of the Ivy League, which is, after all, an athletic league…

So, look. As a club, [eSports] is fine […] if you want to actually be a sport, is it subject to Title IX?

Oh, that’s true.

There’s a lot more regulations if you’re actually talking about “hey, we want this to be treated legitimately like a sport,” right? Now there’s Title IX and all of these types of things […] So now as a club, there are plenty of these types of clubs around here, and if you think about it, there’s a whole lot of other niche sports that are clubs at other universities, right? Not every university has an official fencing team.

That’s fair.

They might have a fencing club, and I think that’s probably what the status of eSports is going to be at a lot of universities, because do you want to spend money for a coach, right? I mean, why do people make things an actual sport? Well, they might do it for recruitment, or they’re doing it because there are a significant amount of alumni that are pushing it and [the university will] get money for it. If we had a significant number of Cornell alums that said our Cornell giving is contingent on the creation of an eSports team, they would do it tomorrow, and they would figure out how to work out the Title IX.

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I mean, that’s how money works, right?

Money works right into sort of the realities of being a university, right? As a recruitment tool, I mean, maybe, but it’s not clear that, you know, the type of student that you’re going to recruit by eSports is sort of any different than the type of student that we’re already recruiting by the types of academic programs that we already have here.

I mean, I think that’s a little bit unfair.

I mean, we are very highly ranked, so what is I guess the real question is this: where would we be recruiting that wouldn’t normally be recruiting, right? Because we are a very highly ranked computer science department, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody we’re going to recruit is a computer science person.

Just going forward, as eSports develops more in our society, you have the point that you made that it’s kind of a natural recruitment thing.

It is a natural recruitment thing and then I mean there is the bigger issue which is that […] a lot of these times where they recruit it’s also because you know people like there’s a non-trivial part of your population that are thinking about going pro. A lot of people who do football in colleges, it’s because they’re going to go pro or you know at Cornell we’re not the type to send pro football players but we might send a pro basketball player.

OK, sure.

Right. eSports is weird in the sense that pros have a very, very short lifespan, right? […] You have people aging out of the sport by the age at which they would graduate from the university which is, you know, a real sort of concern if you’re thinking about “oh, this is something we’re going to be promoting at a university.” It really is a very young person’s game […] that’s one of the things affecting eSports now. You’re at this age where they’ve got to be old enough so they could legally make money, right, so you’re not doing crazy stuff with you know child labor laws or anything like that, but, I mean, you hear people retiring in their mid 20s. I mean, people do wash out in basketball and football but a good football star has, you know, a good 20 year career right?

I think that with Twitch there is potential for you to have a longer-lived career.

As a commentator, but that’s – I mean, look. If we were to look at the equivalent for that for football, now you’re talking about things like Ditka and McMahon where, you know, it’s like a 50 year career right here.

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But, I mean even just as, I don’t know, maybe not at the forefront of the competitive scene, but if you’re streaming on Twitch and people know you and you have some following…

Yeah, the whole streaming on Twitch as a career is a really hard sell, because, man, it’s a hard life, right? Because, you know, being live. I mean, this is why we’ve had like the guy with the heart attack on Twitch play right? Like, being alive, not being recorded [is a necessary break that all humans need]. Always having to build that brand is very hard. For me, maybe if there was actually a Twitch channel and they have like comedy, you know, and then they hire talent for this or that… maybe. But even so, even in football, the number of people that go on from their careers to be professional commentators is low. A lot of people, what happens is they make a lot of money as a football player and then they need to live on that for the rest of their lives, which they could do, but not easily, with a 20 year career. I mean you certainly hear these horror stories, particularly of the guys who die of the brain damage, where basically they were forgotten about, and they spent all their money.

Well now with eSports, let’s put that [up for a comparison]. I’m going to be charitable I’m going to say five years [is a reasonable average career length]. And so that’s really hard, right? That’s certainly a very hard sell of “this is going to be a sport that we’re going to treat seriously” in the sense of like, you know, [where a university like Cornell can say], “if we recruit you as a scholarship player, then in many ways it’s sort of understood that this sport that you’re playing takes precedence over your academics.”

OK.

Yeah, right. And for a five year career, that’s crazy.

I guess so…

So that’s a reason to do it as a club, right? There’s a club, there’s no pressure on, this is secondary, right? School’s not spending a lot of money on it, right? At best, maybe what the school can do is they could fund you travel money to competitions or whatever, but now you’re not that much different than sort of like a very-high-up-there student club right funded by a Student Assembly. I certainly think Cornell is going to be that way. I think a lot of other places are going to be that way. Where you’re going to see it differently is probably in the lower tier universities – the ones that are having the severe recruitment problems right now just because what we’re past the hump; 2011 was sort of like the millennial hump. The number of people going to colleges now is decreasing. It’s not collapsing, but it’s decreasing.

It’s going to collapse soon enough, of course.

Yeah it is, and [then it’s going to] rise again [until] about 2026, or something I think – I heard the number but I can’t remember. And so this is causing a lot of these sort of much smaller liberal arts colleges – they’re very tuition-dependent – that aren’t hitting their recruitment numbers to go under, right? And they may run the numbers and go “yeah, new eSports team looks like a good idea.” But I’m not sure that it’s really going to be much more than a club. You know, even places that have really high profile game programs like USC or CMU, I don’t really see them putting an eSports team at the level of an actual sports team.

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