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Erin Kinzel

The Bethel University Athletic Department announces the formation of an esports team, set to begin in fall 2020. Esports is organized, multiplayer video gaming played competitively for spectators. It has the fastest-growing global audience of all sports, estimated at 433 million fans. According to the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), more than 170 colleges and universities currently have a varsity esports program, with many student-athletes concentrated in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors.

A partnership with the City of South Bend will give the Bethel team a dedicated practice room within the state-of-the art LAN cafe and access to a 600-seat esports arena with Bethel organizing and hosting competitions at the Century Center. The Center’s Bendix Theatre (soon to be Bendix Arena) is undergoing a $2 million renovation to create space for esports activities and competitions.

Christopher Hess, Bethel’s associate athletic director, is leading the charge for getting the program up and running, including a search for a coach for the team.

“As we looked at the opportunity presented by the Bendix Theatre renovation, and as we began to research collegiate esports, it became clear that there is a lot of momentum for esports and having a Pilot team would be an asset to the athletic department and to the university,” says Hess. “Our athletic department wants to provide the best college experience we can for our students and there are a lot of student gamers (women and men) here on campus that can enhance that experience by enjoying the benefits of all that comes with being a part of a team.”

He notes that there has been positive discussion with other Crossroads League schools about advancing a plan for esports, that would possibly include teams and esports competitions. So far, Mount Vernon Nazarene University is the only other Crossroads League institution to formally start a team, although it appears many more will be coming soon.

The Bethel team will have regular group practice times, an emphasis on physical and mental health, and will travel to competitions. In addition to a varsity team, the university will begin a club sport open to all students. Both the team and the club will focus on games that fit Bethel’s mission and values, avoiding games that have gratuitous violence or objectify women. The Bendix Arena and LAN Café will also be available for intramural tournaments and summer esports camps.

“For those who aren’t familiar with esports, it might seem strange for Bethel to be starting a team,” says Hess. “But this is the future, and a lot of students are attracted to a school where they can participate as part of a team instead of video games being a solitary activity. In a day where living life through your own private device may seem like the way to go, the opportunity to have community, team and family is actually an exciting move in a direction that is much more who we want to be at Bethel University.”

Hess also sees it as a ministry opportunity, both to students and the community.

“We can take our athletic department’s philosophy of having pastor-coaches and apply it to esports the same way it applies to other teams on campus,” he says. “And we hope that our practice and competition space at the Century Center will allow us to build relationships with community members who play esports, including area high schools, where the growth of esports is tremendous.”

Jeff Jarnecke, executive director of venues for the City of South Bend, is excited about the partnership with Bethel. “As we learned more of President Chenoweth’s vision for what a Bethel University esports program could be, we quickly knew there was great potential in a partnership and hopefully long term relationship,” he says. “Working to establish Bendix Arena as the premier esports facility in the Midwest, it was important to have partners who shared in this desire. We are honored to have Bethel University and its new team call Bendix Arena home and look forward to helping them not only create lifelong memories for their students but capture championships as well.”

This is one of many community partnerships that benefit Bethel’s athletic programs, allowing Pilot teams to take advantage of state-of-the-art facilities in the area. Another example is Bethel’s men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams, launched in 2019, who practice and compete at the new Elkhart Health & Aquatics center.

To inquire about joining Bethel’s esports team or club, contact Hess at Christopher.Hess@BethelUniversity.edu.

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