This university will be the first in the KC area to add a new varsity team: Esports

Park University is the first Kansas City area college to launch a varsity eSports team.  The team goes into action on the Parkville campus in Spring 2019
Park University is the first Kansas City area college to launch a varsity eSports team. The team goes into action on the Parkville campus in Spring 2019

This sport has the fastest-growing fan base around, and Park University plans to be the first college in the Kansas City area to become a player.

Park is set to launch its first varsity esports team in the spring, complete with a new gaming facility, scholarships and a national search for a coach.

As a result, the university will be at the forefront of “the future of digital competition,” said Shane Smeed, Park’s vice president and chief operating officer.

“It is big,” Smeed told The Star on Monday. “We see us adding more teams as we go. The sky is the limit.”

Smeed said the university is starting with a six-figure investment in esports, including the $80,000 that Park students agreed to contribute through a $10 per credit hour tech fee they all pay.

The Parkville campus is now looking nationally for an esports coach. Smeed said the university has already gotten several inquiries about the position from people in Kansas City.

Park will join Missouri Valley College, which this year offered esports athletes thousands of dollars in scholarships to join their team. Missouri Valley, in Marshall, Mo., signed its first female member earlier this year — an incoming freshman from Overland Park — with a $60,000 four-year scholarship.

More than 80 colleges and universities — including Division 1 schools — have competitive varsity esports teams and are members of the National Association of Collegiate Esports. That’s nearly double the membership the nonprofit had at the start of the year.

The group formed two summers ago at the first ever Collegiate Esports Summit, held in Kansas City. Robert Morris University in Illinois was the first school to establish a varsity esports program in 2014. The organization oversees rules and competition for its member institutions, but not all esports teams are members.

In addition to the varsity program, Smeed said, intramural esports can help Park connect its 40 campus centers across the country and its 17,000 students, some of whom are enrolled online from around the world.

Gaming experts say the esports audience is the fastest growing sports fan base in the world. And Smeed sees esports as a recruiting and university branding tool.

To start, Park’s esports program will compete in League of Legends, one of seven esports offered through the national esports association. The university plans to offer additional games the following fall, along with scholarships of about $3,000 a year to recruit the top athletes.

Students signed to Park’s new esports team can pair their athletic scholarship with academic scholarships to help cover the private school’s tuition of $10,000 to $12,000.

Like Missouri Valley, Park will build a state-of-the-art gaming facility on campus, where esports athletes will train and host matches. The university’s “Parkade,” equipped with high-tech gaming equipment and giant-screen televisions, will be in Park’s Mabee Learning Center/Academic Underground and is expected to be completed by December.

Other schools in Missouri and Kansas with varsity esports teams include Kansas Wesleyan, McPherson College, Southwest Baptist University, Stephens College and Maryville University.