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New administration places Western Kentucky varsity esports in jeopardy

A lack of funding, sponsorships and administrative support has put Western Kentucky University's varsity esports program is in jeopardy. A WKU spokesman said there is no plan to support scholarships for the team yet because of statewide budget cuts. Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire

Marrquon Bartee fell in love with gaming before most kids learn how to write their own name. He would stare into the glow of the TV screen while his older cousins furiously punched the keys of their Super Nintendo. When they left for elementary school, he'd take the reins.

The Louisville native's passion grew as he did. By the time he started college at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, he was itching to compete.

"I figured if I was going to spend this much time playing video games. I needed to make it constructive," he said. "I could be streaming, creating content for people. It's always been my mindset. I love to entertain people."

Now, as a graduate student in student affairs and counseling, Bartee is the coach of Western's Overwatch team. His players, alongside a six-person League of Legends team, comprise the university's varsity esports program.

When the program began in the fall of 2016, Western was only the second public university in the country with a varsity team. Then-president Gary Ransdell signed a letter approving the program in May that year, and the team played its first season a few months later. The university dedicated a room for an arena, and the school's IT department donated the computers necessary to compete. A local business even printed a banner to be hung on the arena wall.

Western became an early adopter of the nationally growing trend toward university-sanctioned varsity esports. With more than 20,000 enrolled students, it is still one of the largest schools to support a program.

But the heady days of the program's launch are beginning to wane. The National Association of Collegiate Esports -- the sport's national governing body, which is itself just over a year old -- has quickly swelled to include nearly 60 member universities and began charging a $2,500 fee this fall to cover various expenses.

NACE's member universities dole out $9 million in scholarships annually for esports students, according to the organization, but Western is not yet one of them. The university isn't able to fund the esports team beyond providing the room and the machines, media relations director Bob Skipper said in an email.

While the university is considering funding scholarships, "serious budget challenges" mean financial support for 2018 is also unlikely, Skipper said. And compared to other states, Kentucky higher education is knee-deep in budget shortfalls: Kentucky has cut down funding for higher education by more than 26 percent since 2008, putting it among the 10 states with the biggest funding cuts, according to the Lexington Herald-Ledger.

Western's administrators did not respond to multiple requests for more information on what cuts they have made or plan to make to other programs and did not provide an explanation as to why $2,500 is an unreachable amount of funding.

"No decisions have been made on budget reductions," Skipper said in an email. "There is a group currently reviewing the entire budgeting process which will make recommendations before the next budget is constructed."

Western esports wasn't able to pay the membership fee, but it fought to stay afloat. Patricia Todd, chair of the university's marketing department and director of the esports program, said the team started a Spirit Funder campaign, which is like a college GoFundMe. It reached $500, far short of the team's $7,500 goal. The extra money would have paid for team jerseys, scholarships, coaches, gaming chairs and more.

"It's really tough because people who are outside of esports don't understand the potential and the growth opportunity," Todd said, "so we've been struggling a little bit."

When the NACE dues became an issue, Todd also began seeking sponsorships from companies such as computer manufacturers, but no one has committed to funding the team yet.

"There's just so much potential" for varsity gamers to go on to full-time jobs in the industry, she said. "But to communicate that to somebody that doesn't know what [esports] is so difficult."

NACE waived its fee for the beginning of the fall semester as Western attempted to fundraise. But as the season wore on, the organization started to request the funds, Bartee said.

"I'm assuming maybe next year it'll be a defined rule that if you don't pay this fee, you can't play," Bartee said. "I'm not sure how things will operate next time around."

Eventually, if the team isn't able to pay, it will not be able to be a NACE member, which would give Western access to both competitions and resources such as recruiting platforms and collective purchasing power for equipment.

"No decisions have been made on budget reductions. There is a group currently reviewing the entire budgeting process which will make recommendations before the next budget is constructed."

Bob Skipper, Western Kentucky media relations director

Michael Brooks, the executive director of NACE, said 96 percent of all varsity esports programs are members of the association. Of those, only three -- Southwest Baptist University and Missouri Baptist University in addition to Western -- weren't able to pay the qualifying fee. Brooks said NACE has more members that are well-funded than those that are not.

"For institutions that are really taking the reins, there is absolute buy-in from the administration," Brooks said. "Without the support of the administration, there's only so far you can go by yourself."

Western's lack of scholarships for players is also abnormal. Brooks said all member institutions except two provide at least partial scholarships to players, and one of those is a Division III institution that doesn't provide scholarships to any athletes. Several provide full-ride scholarships: Harrisburg University, a tiny STEM school in Pennsylvania, provides up to 16 full scholarships annually for varsity esports players.

Nick Conrad, one of the student founders of the program and a current coordinator for the team, said it's beneficial to be a part of the NACE because it has had a massive impact on centralizing competition between universities.

"We're at a disadvantage because a lot of the schools in [the NACE] are private schools, and they have a lot more money to invest in esports," Conrad said. While the team could still compete directly in tournaments put on by companies such as Blizzard Entertainment or Riot Games, the lack of university funding also means the team can't afford to travel to most tournaments or get upgraded equipment, he said.

In early December, Western's semester came to a finish, and the eerie quiet of vacation settled over the campus. The team will decide what its next move will be when it regroups in January.

As Todd attempts to balance her duties as a department chair, much of that responsibility will fall upon students like Bartee and Conrad.

"It's all on the backs of the students right now," she said.

But their hopes are high: Conrad wants to see the school's team grow to rival large programs such as University of California-Irvine, another varsity program that has arena space, as well as multiple scholarship esports. As a recent graduate, he's looking for a job at Western so he can stay to help support the team.

Bartee plans to hold more watch parties for the team's matches with the hopes that spectators will be entertained by the sport and be compelled to pitch in.

"That's what it comes down to," he said. "If they know us, if they know our struggles, if they've seen us play, then they have more potential to donate to the program."

Being a part of a team, entertaining others and competing to be the best drew Bartee to esports. He and his teammates hope Western will be able to keep bringing that to future students, and they're willing to fight for it.

"We have to make something out of nothing. We were presented with this obstacle, and we have to figure out how to cross it," he said. "Because that's how progress is -- it's no straightforward line."