Leading Esports for Shenandoah University: an interview with Dr. Joey Gawrysiak

Dr. Joey Gawrysiak is the Director of Esports and an Associate Professor of Esports at Shenandoah University. Dr. Gawrysiak started the esports competitive teams in 2018, which now consists of 5 varsity game titles and over 50 students competing in the Esports Arena at Shenandoah University. Dr. Gawrysiak also wrote one of the first esports curricula in the world with academic programs and certifications across the field of esports at the undergraduate and graduate levels of study. In 2019, Dr. Gawrysiak founded GHS Esports Solutions LLC with two partners to consult professional and academy entities on a variety of esports strategies. Dr. Gawrysiak serves on the board of Directors for the National Association of Collegiate Esports as well as the advisory board for the World-Wide Scholastic Esports Foundation. 

Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA, offers a varsity esports program and plays teams from around the country as a member of the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE). It was ranked one of the top 15 esports programs in the country and is devoted to preparing students to succeed in esports and related fields.

NGame Esports: You lead the academic esports experience and competitive esports experience for the university. Can you briefly tell us your responsibilities for each segment?

Dr. Joey Gawrysiak: There are a lot of different hats that I wear. Sometimes I vacuum the arena – whatever I need to. Primarily, my job is to oversee everything on the academic, competitive, and professional development sides while finding room for advancement, as well.

On the competitive side, my role as director is high-level stuff —making sure we’re signed up for tournaments and leagues, handling the budget, handling partnerships and sponsorships, making sure that logistically, we are ready to go on whatever we do, etc. I don’t do any strategy in the games, which is a good thing; otherwise, my teams would be absolutely terrible (laughs).

On the academic side, I’m the director and an associate professor teaching in some of our courses for esports. I also do advising and mentoring. I’m in charge of making sure that we’re offering those classes throughout the year, that we have the appropriate faculty members teaching those classes, and then bringing in outside help. We have a partnership with the Washington Justice.

NGame Esports: Why was it important for the university to have an esports academic program?

Dr. Joey Gawrysiak: Shenandoah likes being innovative. Universities need to adapt to the new generation of students. The university president ,Tracy Fitzsimmons, knew that I was a gamer doing research in esports and competitive gaming for a number of years. She looked at me and said, “Why don’t you start an esports major?” I said, “Those don’t really exist.” And she said, “So, make it.” 

I knew that in a good way, my plate was going to be full for an entire year writing curriculum, trying to get it approved by committees, but the president was on board from day zero. Having [esports] engrained as part of the university experience here at Shenandoah was important to show that we are innovative — reaching students where their passions are to help them get to that next level after college. 

Yes, it’s great for recruitment and retention, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a sense of belonging and community.

NGame Esports: The esports academic program offers multiple specializations such as esports management, esports media and communication, and an esports coaching certificate. Which specialization has received the most interest from students?

Dr. Joey Gawrysiak: That is a great question. Going into it, I thought it would be esports management. I think it started out that way in year one, but here in year two, the specialization that has received a lot of attention is media and communication. It’s a sign of the times and shows how important broadcast production and content creation is to the esports industry.

When I look at what students want to do and where their interest is, a lot of them have switched from that management side to media and communication. That skillset translates to other industries, especially online and streaming. That is has really caught fire this year. I think COVID might have something to do with that. Students realize that they can’t rely on in-person spectator experiences. The coaching is our newest area, so it hasn’t caught on as much yet.

NGame Esports: Now moving to the competitive esports experience, what was it like to build the program from scratch?

Dr. Joey Gawrysiak: It was so easy! (laughs) No, it’s a process. It takes a lot of work and guesswork at times because there isn’t a blueprint for this. When we started this three years ago, there weren’t many schools that had a varsity esports program. That’s okay, though, because we wanted to make it our own. 

One of the things every school has to have to start a competitive program is one person that wears the big “R” for responsibility on their shirt. That one person is a champion for the program that can talk to administration, faculty, community members, students, parents, etc. That consistency drives the program and gets it to where it needs to be. 

NGame Esports: What advice would you give to universities looking to start an esports competitive program?

Dr. Joey Gawrysiak: Do it. Find a way to get it off the ground because students are interested in this whether universities realize it or not. The simple checklist is that you have to have the equipment, the students, a dedicated space, and that one person (not two or three) that is clearly identified as being in charge, good or bad.

It’s okay to start small. We started in a room with 13 PCs that we shared with our virtual reality program just to get things off the ground.

As far as teams go, go with what the student interest is. If you have a lot of students that want to play SMITE, have a SMITE team. If you don’t have any students that want to play League of Legends, don’t have an LoL team. You can’t force certain games on students and expect them to be successful.

Written by HB Duran

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