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As Hawaii Looks to Build Tech Industry, Attention Turns To Esports

Jamie McInall
CC0 1.0 / Pexels

Hawaii has long sought to diversify its economy and build up its tech industry. One area gaining ground at local colleges is the competitive video gaming known as esports. 

Started back in 1972 when students at Stanford University battled each other in the game Spacewar, esports has grown into a billion-dollar industry.

Larger tournaments offer millions of dollars in prize money, and use football stadiums as venues.

Sky Kauweloa, a Ph.D. student with the University of Hawai?i at Manoa School of Communications, is one of the few academics in the country researching esports.

"I would say 10 to 15 years ago, if you said esports, you could literally just say it's just people playing  games competitively," Kauweloa said. Since then, the sector has expanded in different directions.

"Now, it's no longer the case that esports is just about competitive gaming," he said. "I'm thinking it more of a top-level ecosystem, where at the center there is the gamers who are playing competitively. On the periphery, web developers, event planners, shoutcasters, analysts, fan communities."

The meteoric growth of esports has caught the attention of colleges across the country. Ohio State University created the first undergraduate and graduate esports programs last October. ESPN reports roughly 125 colleges in North America have programs in esports.

In Hawaii, UH has offered a semester-long course on esports for the past two years that Kauweloa teaches.

"That course is basically an introductory course to the topic of esports at the professional level and at the college level," he said.

Universities are not only offering courses, but also launching competitive teams.

Last year, Hawaii Pacific University was the first in the state to establish a collegiate esports team -- and it opened a 3,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art arena at Aloha Tower.

Cody Down, chief information officer at HPU who oversees the arena, said the school doesn’t have a dedicated esports class; the university is still working on where it might fit in its scholastic and athletic programs.

"Some colleges, it falls under athletics, and other colleges or universities, it's either a stand-alone or falls under IT or somewhere else," Down said. "Ours is a bit of a hybrid. So the facility and the program and the running of the business falls under IT. Whereas the team itself, we have a League of Legends team, that falls under athletics."

The League of Legends and Overwatch League are among the largest esports leagues, with multi-player and first-person shooter tournaments featuring live broadcasts of the action held nationally and internationally.

Next year, UH’s League of Legends and Overwatch teams will compete in the Mountain West Conference – the same league that hosts the Warriors football team. HPU will compete in the Peach Belt Conference.

Although both HPU and UH have ambitions for their teams, the schools are also hoping to expand their academic offerings. But a degree in esports may not be necessary for those who want to get into the industry.

"It would be nice to say that we have the industry, and we have an environment in which we can have full on proper degrees -- where that can be applied to different components of the esports sector," Kauweloa said. "Right now, that is not the case."

Coming up: Hawaii could become a major tourist destination for esports competitions, but what would it take for that to happen?

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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