The world of Esports has skyrocketed in popularity in the last decade, packing stadiums with screaming fans, and making overnight stars out of previously unknown gamers whose skill and expertise would have gone unappreciated only a few years ago. But even as Esports continue to grow in cultural influence, legacy industries and organizations have been slow to adapt to this emerging space. But at the University of North Carolina, with the leadership of faculty and students alike, the Division 1 school is making a push to take their place at the forefront of competitive and educational Esports, and using Lenovo technology to get them there.
There from the Start
On the morning Carolina Esports was created, PHD student Matthew Belskie and friend Michael Good arrived at UNC administration’s offices to deliver a presentation on Esports. Together they elaborated on Belskie’s research into reducing toxicity in gaming communities. They emphasized the power of gaming in a university setting to develop useful and versatile skills, and they reminded the University of one key fact – its students were already gamers. The student led Esports club was already the most popular club on campus.
“It was really important for us to remember that there was already a strong community on campus doing Esports.” Belskie says, “However, to be able to succeed in that required building some sort of support around that.”
Belskie and Good felt that the University should take advantage of that enthusiasm to create something that would meet the student body where its interests already lied, and leverage University resources to make students’ gaming experiences even more enriching from an educational perspective. Much to their delight, the University supported that vision.
Carolina Esports recognized that a shared space for students to game together face-to-face would be key in fostering a supportive and collaborative environment. One of the first tasks for the new Carolina Esports program was to create a ‘Gaming Arena’ a cultural center for the new world of gaming at UNC.
If You Build It, They Will Come
The new gaming arena needed to be a place that could support all three aspects. A place for competitive teams to train and compete, a place for casual gamers and non-gamers to come together for social events and community building, and a place for students to develop useful technical and career-focused skills. To accomplish those goals, UNC relied on their long-standing partnership with Lenovo.
Belskie explains: “The three pillars that were important to us were community, curriculum and competition. It was imperative that we found a partner who really stuck to those same values as well. Lenovo was an easy choice for us. We’ve had a long partnership with them, and we knew that they held to those same values as much as we do.”
The most obvious needs for the space, were the computers themselves. UNC’s gamers needed consoles and PCs to play games on, and Lenovo could easily cater to those needs with the Lenovo Legion line of gaming PCs which delivered top of the line performance.
“The Legion desktops we use are top-end, so there’s no problem there,” explains Jeff Palumbo, Senior Global Esports and CTE Manager at Lenovo.” But the University’s needs went beyond RAM and graphics cards.
Solutions and Streaming Operations
“We knew that Esports should be Services and Solutions led,” continues Palumbo. “What it came down to is how are we going to operate this space? How do we automate this?”
After consulting with UNC Esports leaders, Lenovo went to work creating Esports Solutions that would support the University’s goals end-to-end.
To do this, Lenovo leveraged the power of its partners and services. By bringing in collaborative software partners like ggLeap, they made it seamless for students to access dozens of pre-loaded games, and ggRock, a PXE boot server service, to make the task of maintaining the Gaming Arena as efficient as possible.
“I think that if we were relying on just people power alone to install and update and maintain games on the 30 plus computers that we have, that this would just be a no-go,” says Belskie. “So having those smart Esports Solutions that are able to manage the installation, updating, and the maintenance of games, is critical to us being able to succeed in this space and at the scale that we do.”
Lenovo Esports Solutions, working in tandem with the Legion computers and Lenovo servers, create a seamless, self-sustaining infrastructure.
“They actually eliminated the need to update any PC ever again,” says Palumbo “because it updates all the games and all the drivers they need”.
A Place to Call Home
With the Carolina gaming arena open and active, students are already taking advantage of the community space
“Being able to interact with the community in person now, after so much time online, it feels really fun,” says Student Leader Ryan McLaughlin. “But the best part of that is just having a place to meet. And with the Carolina Gaming Arena, we’re able to have a place that.”
As casual gamers use the space to come together, Esports athletes are also able to nurture their academic interests.
“Esports can give you a lot of familiarity with computers and a lot of technical know-how,” explains Andrew Wortas, competitive Overwatch player and computer science student. “So, I think you can really use that to branch into other STEM fields such as Computer Science. Being a computer scientist makes me a better competitor and being a competitor makes me a better computer scientist.”
And the same Lenovo Legion PCs that support the Overwatch team, power the University’s student led Esports broadcasts.
“A lot of the equipment that we use in the studios, is the exact same stuff that is in here,” explains Blake Hawkins, Communications student and Esports broadcaster. “All of the Lenovo PCs and monitors and everything, they are the ones that are running our broadcasts. They are streaming games, they are running Open Broadcast Software, they are getting feeds from different cameras that we have hooked up to it. They can run all of that effectively, so that definitely helps our peace of mind knowing that the equipment we have is not going to freeze up on us, or not going to fail.”
As new semesters begin, Carolina Esports now has everything they need to not only thrive competitively, but thrive as a community as well, and as the program moves into the future, Lenovo is continuing to support them.
“To be able to partner with Lenovo as UNC is such a special thing.” Says Belskie “It’s bringing two championship pedigrees together to create this new Esports champion in the collegiate space.