Lucas Fricke played college football, but after a back injury ended his athletic career and he went off to graduate school in Europe, he got “heavy into gaming.”
It didn’t take him long to notice that there were certain aspects of playing video games that were similar to participating in athletics.
“Working with teammates is one,” he said, “and it’s just as competitive.”
Fricke also noticed that the most-competitive and pro players were devoting the same kinds of hours into honing their skills — if not more — that he did when he was a Division III linebacker at New Ulm’s Martin Luther College.
“They’re devoting 14-16 hours a week just for practice,” he said. “When I was playing football, we’d put in two or three hours for practice, plus lifting weights, so that’s 14-16 hours a week, too."
So to Fricke, it’s no surprise that esports have exploded in recent years, especially on college campuses, where more and more competitive, varsity-level teams are being formed.
Next fall, Mankato's Bethany Lutheran will be one of those colleges, and Fricke, a Bethany Spanish and German professor, will be the school’s esports director. BLC production studio specialist Seth Grabow, a 2015 alum, will be the team’s head coach.
The college announced its plans last week and had a kickoff event Tuesday night that included president Gene Pfeifer and Ted Manthe, the school’s vice president of student affairs.
“As we recruit for the esports program, we’ll treat the process just the same as we do for our other activities, emphasizing Bethany’s commitment to high-caliber academics and our unique, Christ-centered mission in higher education,” Pfeifer said in a statement.
While more than 600 colleges around the United States have esports clubs, Bethany’s will be an official activity, such as an athletic team or music group on campus. Bethany is joining more than 130 other colleges in the National Association of Collegiate Esports and will require its players to maintain academic eligibility and follow other team and school rules to participate and retain scholarships.
That’s right, scholarships.
“We’ll be able to offer activity scholarships similar to fine arts and music,” said Lance Schwartz, BLC’s director of institutional communication. “The biggest thing is the chance to offer what we feel is a great education and college experience to a broader community."
That means Fricke is on the recruiting trail, looking for top-level gamers, just as Bethany’s athletic coaches are seeking players for their programs. There already are a couple of top players on campus, he said.
Fricke said Bethany’s program will have about 20 varsity-level players and two JV-level squads. Bethany, the second Minnesota college after Concordia-St. Paul to offer esports as a varsity activity, will participate in five multiplayer games: League of Legends, Overwatch, Hearthstone, Rocket League and Super Smash Bros.
Fricke was, at one time, in the top 1% of League of Legends players and will coach that game. Grabow will coach the other games.
Bethany also has a close connection to Overwatch, as 2007 graduate Erik Lonnquist, known as "DoA" is a professional commentator for that league.
Schwartz said a gaming room will be constructed on campus in Honsey Hall this summer. That’s where the team will practice and compete in events. Since the games are online, teams don’t travel for competitions.
Although some colleges, including Concordia-St. Paul, which announced its team in November and will also begin play in the fall, will administer esports through its athletics department, Bethany’s program will be part of student life, Fricke said, with an emphasis on balancing practices and play with academics and personal life and even getting others on campus, including broadcasters and producers in the BLC Studios and other media arts students, involved.
“That’s the best fit for us,” he said, “because this is a whole, encompassing experience.”