APU Careers & Learning Leading Forward Podcast

Esports Club Leads to Development of Esports Management Degree

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Podcast featuring Dr. Marie Gould Harper, Dean, Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Dr. Brian Freeland, Dean, School of Health Sciences
Dr. Jim Reese, Department Chair, Sports Management & Esports

The esports industry just passed a billion dollars in revenue, confirming the growing popularity of competitive gaming. In this episode, Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to Dr. Brian Freeland and Dr. Jim Reese about their work developing an esports academic degree program focused on esports management, including coaching and team management, which will launch in February 2022. Learn about the growing success of APU’s esports club team, and how its 500+ members are helping develop the direction of the academic program to align with the changes and growth happening in the esports industry.

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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome to our podcast today. I’m your host, Marie Gould Harper. My guests today are Dr. Brian Freeland and Dr. Jim Reese. We are going to discuss the growing popularity of esports. Brian and Jim, welcome to our podcast, and thank you for joining me.

I want to share a little bit about Dr. Reese and Dr. Freeland. Dr. Brian Freeland is the dean of the School of Health Sciences. He holds a BS in teaching and physical education from Radford University, an MSS in sports management from the United States Sports Academy, and an EDD in Sports Management and Leadership from North Central University.

Dr. Jim Reese is an associate professor and Department Chair for the undergraduate and graduate Sports Management program. He holds an MS in Sports Management from Georgia Southern University and an EDD in Physical Education Sports Administration from the University of Northern Colorado. Both Dr. Reese and Dr. Freeland are co-faculty advisors for the American Public University Esports Club.

As I said before, thank you for joining me. Just so our audience has an idea of how we came to today, I was reading the article entitled “McDonald’s Links with Esports Giant FaZe Clan to Spotlight Diversity in Gaming.” I think that article came out about August of this year. I immediately went to Dr. Freeland, brought it up, and suggested that we do a podcast because his department, his school is doing wonderful things in the area of esports. Dr. Freeland, would you care to share with us how your area came about this particular topic and knew it was going to be popular?

Dr. Brian Freeland: Yeah, absolutely. Well first, thanks for having us. We’re excited to be here. Esports has been a hot topic and several conversations over the years. We have an Industry Advisory Council in the School of Health Sciences. We actually have one for all of our programs, and then we have a combined Industry Advisory Council, and so this topic has been coming up for probably, gosh, close to a decade, just talking about the esports movement, how much it’s growing, the impact it has on the industry, higher education, how important it has become for institutions to have esports as another co-curricular activity for their students.

And so we’ve been watching the industry grow and thinking about ways we could take part of that from an allied health standpoint. We have several health sciences programs, which are really heavy in the science portion with nursing, public health, healthcare administration, but we also have some allied health sciences programs as well, such as sports management, coaching, and athlete development management. We feel like esports really fits nicely with that allied health culture that we’ve really built the School of Health Sciences.

One thing we did was we’d started off with a club. Dr. Jim Reese and I decided to launch an Esports Club and see what kind of interest is there. Actually, the interest really started with student initiatives, contacting our student organizations department, and really asking for such a club.

Since we were interested in building an academic degree one day, we thought, “We’ll give this a chance and see what happens.” Dr. Reese and I are co-sponsors of the club and today we have over 500 students participating.

And what they do is basically play games together, get to know each other. We use Discord as a means for communication and our students engage with each other by participating in games, getting to know each other through Discord, developing small events to participate in, too, and fighting each other, to participate. Sharing their streaming/YouTube/Twitch channels with each other and just talking about gaming.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: That sounds exciting. What’s interesting is the fact that at the time that you and Dr. Reese started the club, you didn’t have the program, so what areas were these students coming from, and what was attracting them to this particular club?

Dr. Brian Freeland: Yeah, so the students that have joined the Esports Club really come from all over the university. We have over 100 degree programs at the university and so we see a diverse group of students with different academic goals and interests. We have bachelor’s degree students, master’s degree students, some in each of our schools, whether it’s the School of Business, whether it’s the School of Education, Security and Global Studies, Arts and Humanities, Health Sciences, students from all over.

That’s been one of the most exciting aspects for me is watching our entire student population communicate and get to know each other and just have fun. For an online institution trying to create opportunities for students to engage can be a challenge at times. This is one avenue that I’ve seen where our students have common interests and get to know each other and just seem like they’re really having a good time teaming up with each other to play video games against one another or with each other. It’s just been fantastic to see that type of engagement.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay, great. Dr. Reese, we don’t want to leave you out. What is the program or what do you anticipate the program at American Public University to look like?

Dr. Jim Reese: Well, as Brian said earlier, thanks so much for having us. We really appreciate it and we are very excited about the program. Right now, we’ve got nine different courses that comprise the program and we may do some concentrations down the road, but right now, we’re just going to focus on those nine classes and launching the program in February. We really think that it’s going to take off.

As Brian mentioned earlier, we’ve got over 500 students in the club and we expect a lot of those folks to be interested in the major, so we’ll see how it goes. We’re real excited and we really think it’s going to be really successful.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay, great. Is it safe to say that the members of your club will be the initial target population for these programs?

Dr. Jim Reese: I think that that’s one of the first places to start. I don’t know how many undeclared students there are in the club and I don’t know if any would be willing to switch majors, but because they’re so active, I think word of mouth is very powerful and I think that’s the first place that we will start.

They know about the academic program. We’ve been talking to them about that for the last couple of years as we’ve been putting it together, so that’s probably where we’ll start, and the university is going to be doing some initiatives to help get the program off the ground as well.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay, great. Another question about the programming: What makes your program unique compared to some of the other programs that may have started?

Dr. Jim Reese: That’s a great question. I think the first thing that makes it unique is that we’re 100% online and that’s not the case with a lot of the other programs around the country. That is unique in itself, but it also provides a few challenges from the standpoint of connecting and making sure everything is seamless for the students to interact and so forth.

We were looking to possibly going into broadcasting as the focus of the program, but we’re holding back on moving forward with that, and we’re going to concentrate on getting the program launched and off the ground before we have a certain area such as broadcasting that would separate us from our competition.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay, great. That makes total sense. I wanted to share with both of you a couple of the bullet points that I read in the article that I referenced. Basically, it said, “McDonald’s has teamed with esports and entertainment giant FaZe Clan in what the company’s built as one of the gaming’s biggest QSR partnerships to date, per an announcement. Together, the two will produce dynamic content focused on diversity and inclusion in gaming, including the stories of individual FaZe Clan members.”

Now, I found those two bullet points interesting. One, because I really don’t know about this area other than what the two of you have told me. Why was this announcement so significant in your opinion? Does it play a role in the esports world? That was the part I was like, “McDonald’s? Esports?” I was trying to get the connection.

Dr. Jim Reese: Well, Dr. Harper, I think it’s significant because the members of FaZe Clan are very diverse in themselves. If you look at a photo of the team, you’ll see that they are very diverse. There also have been some issues. I think gaming has gotten a bad rap at times, but some of it’s justified from the standpoint of things that are happening in the online environment that are inappropriate. I think this is a perfect way to talk about diversity is something we definitely need to discuss in this country and make progress in becoming more diverse as not just a country, but in all of our organizations, academic programs, et cetera. That’s why it’s significant in my mind. Of course, for McDonald’s, they are looking to sell more product.

But it’s amazing to see the esports industry just went past a billion dollars in revenue and that’s not even taking a lot of the ancillary revenue streams into account, so a lot of these organizations are jumping, corporations are jumping on board because they see it’s a great way to reach an audience, and so if we can encourage diversity at the same time, I think that’s a great thing.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay. Two questions actually come out of that. The first one: With so many corporations jumping on the bandwagon, do you anticipate any type of sponsorship from corporations for what you’re trying to promote?

Dr. Jim Reese: Well, it’s definitely possible. We’ve got a new department at APUS that focuses on corporate sponsorship and Brian had an opportunity to meet those folks and have a meeting with the Baltimore Ravens for the sports management program. But there are other organizations that Brian and I have been in touch with for esports and I definitely think that’s a possibility. It’s just so great to have someone in area that focuses on corporate sponsorships and I think that’s definitely something that we can do down the road.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome back. I am speaking today with Dr. Brian Freeland and Dr. Jim Reese. One of the things that was mentioned, especially for what this organization is doing, focusing on diversity and inclusion, and based on everything that has been said, I can understand why that’s probably a passion and an area that they definitely want to touch.

Also, Dr. Freeland earlier mentioned what possibilities are. What do you anticipate to be some other areas, especially for your program in the future in way of concentration? Where would it make sense at the university right now? Where do you see it going in the future, staying in touch with what’s going on in society, or do you have some ideas of your own in terms of partnership with other areas?

Dr. Jim Reese: Well, I’ll take that to start and then would love to have Brian jump in and share his thoughts as well. But one of the things that Brian and I talked about early on when we put the club together was allowing it to be grassroots and organic. And I think we’re going to take the same approach with the academic program when it launches.

I think it’s important for us to be connected to the students and to find out where they would like to see the program go. As we mentioned earlier, being 100% online is unique, but also can provide a challenge as well. I think we’re going to continue to do that and interact with the club members and the students and see if there’s a certain direction that they’d like the program to go based on interest and then keep an eye on what other academic programs are doing as well because change is inevitable and we have to change and grow as needed.

Dr. Brian Freeland: Yeah, I think what’s really interesting is that you look at a lot of academic programs and you have some that are more general, you have some that are more specific. You talk about specialized. Esports, very specialized. You have to have someone with that kind of subject matter knowledge to teach the courses and to manage the program and to manage the clubs and to create that engagement. It’s such a niche, it’s so specialized, that we are developing a quality group of Industry Advisory Council members that will focus on esports and our faculty because our faculty are obviously subject matter experts. They love esports, they’re passionate about it. They know it, they have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening, and so we’re really going to rely on them for the future direction, along with our students, and just see where it goes.

One thing that Jim and I have both learned by making some connections in the esports industry is that honestly, everyone’s trying to figure out esports. It’s still so relatively new and it continues to evolve. It continues to change. We were speaking with some folks at another university about a year ago and we were asking them questions about governance, policies when it comes to esports competition at the collegiate level because that is something we’re interested in bringing to American Public University. They were talking about how things can happen spur of the moment, brand new rules or policies, or, “Hey, we’ve never seen this happen before and so we better make a policy.”

You see all these changes that are happening. You see it really developing and forming right before your eyes, which is really, really neat. You look at most sports, they’ve been around forever, so they’re just trying to fix policies and rules where things have gone wrong. And in esports, there were no policies and rules a few years ago, and so everything is really fresh and new and starting, so that’s exciting for us, so we definitely want to keep our finger on the pulse.

I do want to add something about when you look at the way we develop the curriculum, one thing I do think that might separate ourselves a little bit is we are focusing on player development as one of our concentrations. The concentration is actually called Esports Coaching and Athlete Development. We have an athlete development master’s program. We also have coaching concentrations in our undergraduate sports management and our graduate sports management programs, and so we do feel like this is an area that we already have a specialty in, and it’s just adding the esports specialization to it.

So I think that’s something that’s a little bit unique that you may not see a lot of other universities and collegiate programs get into, seeing that coaching athlete development really focusing on the player development aspect and leadership when it comes to coaching a team or how to manage a team, because again, it’s new, and we’re all still trying to figure that out because of how new it is for everyone.

Then some esports programs concentrate on the gaming side, the software development, developing games, the technical side. That’s not this program. This is really focusing on esports, very similar to esports management, which is very similar to sports management, and that is Dr. Reese’s specialty, and the reason why he will be running this program.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I understand. It sounds like you have a nice systematic approach to how this program is going to operate, but it makes sense for your entire school, too. That’s the good thing. I know one of the areas that will probably be a future initiative is to be able to show students a pathway and give them some ideas of what would make sense for them in terms of their academic pursuits as well as just what they have a passion for. Speaking to that, I always want to give a plug to your club. How does one join the club? What’s the instructions? Someone may hear this broadcast and like, “I want to be a part of that.” How would they go about it?

Dr. Jim Reese: Well, Dr. Harper, if students are interested, probably the best place for them to go is to the student organizations website for American Public University. That’s where they can get information on the club and how to join. We have not just students, we were talking earlier about having more than 500 club members, but that includes, we have some staff members that are involved in the club as well.

The club is not limited to just APUS students. High school students are allowed to join the club as well, which is a nice way to get high school students interested in our program. Brian and I, of course, would be happy to share any information about the club with those that may be interested as well.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay, great. Well, this has been a very enlightening session and I hope you keep in touch with us with how not only the program is going, but the interest from the current student base, as well as new people who will be coming in because you’re offering something very exciting, different, and unique than what’s out there now. Dr. Freeland and Dr. Reese, I want to thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your experience and your exciting new program. Any closing words that you have for us?

Dr. Jim Reese: No, only just thank you so much for the opportunity to meet with you today and share the exciting things that are going on with our program.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great. Dr. Freeland?

Dr. Brian Freeland: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having us. We’re really excited about this new program, and it’s not just the academic program, building the club, and also hopefully getting into having competitive teams at the university. We really think the entire esports experience can really help drive engagement and be great opportunities for our students.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Oh, and I know that will be an exciting moment for you because I remember first meeting you and I know sports has always been a very passionate part of your life, so I wish nothing but the best of luck to the both of you on developing this program and looking forward to its success.

Dr. Brian Freeland: Thank you.

Dr. Jim Reese: Thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: You’re welcome. Thank you to our listeners for joining us today. We have been speaking with Dr. Brian Freeland and Dr. Jim Reese. This is Marie Gould Harper thanking you for listening to our podcast today. Have an amazing one.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Dean of the School of Business at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist, and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of experience.

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