Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, is breaking ground as one of the first ELCA schools to sponsor an esports (electronic sports) program, which is a fast-growing arena in U.S. sports.

Dana Hustedt is the full-time director of esports at Grand View, which makes her the first female director of a university esports program in the U.S.

Some might think college students and video games are already inseparable, but this is different. Esports competitions require teamwork, communication and cooperation. The skills needed to play the games—Grand View’s team competes in League of Legends and Overwatch—are so similar to those of physical sports that some of esports’ most committed fans are professional athletes.

Hustedt, an alumna of Grand View and its softball team, understands the connection between traditional college athletic programs and esports. She graduated with a degree in marketing and management in December 2016 and volunteered for the first year of the esports program in 2017.

After managing the first esports tournament at Grand View that March, she was approached about working full time in the program. Despite her limited gaming experience, Hustedt was buoyed by the program’s successful first year and accepted the new role.

“[Through esports] we’re giving an opportunity to a demographic of kids who might not think they’d attend college.”

She recruited 12 teams for last year’s tournament hosted by Grand View, and 16 teams traveled to Des Moines for the esports tournament this March. Grand View’s esports program started with just seven players and this year has 28, of which more than 60 percent received scholarship aid specifically for esports, Hustedt said.

While admitting that some Grand View staff initially had their doubts about esports, Hustedt said they’ve been quick to learn more and are supportive. “I give a lot of presentations to help them understand the kind of students that we have,” she said. “[Through esports] we’re giving an opportunity to a demographic of kids who might not think they’d attend college.”

Some esports recruits are transfers from community colleges or student athletes from other sports. Few of these students would have considered attending a private Lutheran university without the opportunity of joining esports and receiving scholarship support.

With the burgeoning of the esports industry—according to Esports Charts, 200 million people watched the League of Legends world championships last year—this is a fast-growing job market. Part of Hustedt’s role at Grand View is working with the university’s new game design and interactive analysis major, a unique program for a small, religiously affiliated school.

“The esports industry itself has a lot of jobs now, from coaching and broadcasting to social media and graphic design,” Hustedt said. “The game design [major] and esports go hand-in-hand.”

The new major and esports program are all part of Grand View’s liberal arts education, something for which ELCA colleges and universities are known. Hustedt said students majoring in game design take courses in the arts and computer science. The esports athletes, who represent a variety of majors, learn communication and problem-solving skills, all while managing their time studying for classes and traveling on weekends for competitions.

Fischer Henderson, a sophomore from Waukee, Iowa, is one of those esports athletes. He originally attended Grand View on a baseball scholarship but joined the esports program after hearing fellow students talk about it in a freshman seminar.

“I always have people on campus asking me about it and wanting to come see our esports arena,” Henderson said, adding that his peers are interested in creating new esports teams and competitions. “Esports is something that has evolved so quickly in this day and age, and there is obviously a huge demand for it.”

Henderson, who grew up playing traditional sports and video games, said his family was supportive when he decided to join the esports program at Grand View in addition to playing baseball.

“We are all very competitive by nature,” he said of both his baseball and esports teams.

Esports and game design might not be the first things people think of when they hear “Lutheran education,” but Hustedt said her background in Lutheranism and her personal Christian faith are part of why she wants to work with the esports athletes at Grand View.

“I can start to give [the esports athletes] the feeling of being wanted and cared for through a different opportunity,” she said. “That’s just a small part of what I can do, but I’m trying to live out my faith in the best Christian way I can.”

Angela Denker
Angela Denker is an ELCA pastor and journalist. Her book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump, was published in August 2019 by Fortress Press.

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