As the second-semester season starts to crank up, big things are happening with Purdue University Fort Wayne’s esports program.
Under the direction of new coach Jordan Cunningham, 53 players represent the university in local and national competitions. Arriving in the fall, Cunningham has restructured the program to build off the base started in 2019 by Mitch Davidson, associate vice chancellor for ITS and executive director for distributed campus services, and Brian Spaulding, associate director of technology workspace.
Cunningham wrote a handbook for his esports players, running the section like an athletic department varsity team with structure, practice expectations, and decorum, along with support such as new gear to wear on road trips. The seven squads that make up the overall team took their first road trip in October to the “Battle for Indiana” at Butler University.
“I grew up in a traditional sports background and a lot of people have never had this organized background before,” Cunningham said. “The organization and structure are really helping them pull it together.”
As Spaulding said, the fall was mostly about creating and refining the program under new leadership, and the second semester is taking what has been built and dropping it into a competitive schedule.
There are also spectators—sometimes as many as 1,500—watching a live stream of the action called by broadcasters stationed next door in Studio M.
Another new factor is awarding five $1,000 scholarships for the first time, funded by Information Technology Services. One was given to a top freshman, another to a top upper-class player, and the other three to team captains.
The recipients are Cameryn Zehner, Chintan Patel, Jacob Smith, Liam Washer, and Jason Kakesa. To be eligible, applicants must be full-time PFW students and maintain a minimum 3.0 grade point average. Other factors include leadership, sportsmanship, and game rankings. That was for the first year, with future scholarships focusing on recruiting.
“The impact we’ll have ideally is to help us bring in some freshmen,” Cunningham said. “Retention is a big point with the captains because I really do rely upon them. There’s a lot of responsibility, and I would like to give them more. It also offers some incentive if you want to consider becoming a captain.”
Anyone playing on the team is eligible to apply for the scholarships, which are awarded by a committee. There’s also the hope the scholarships could increase and help Purdue Fort Wayne Esports increase its talent base. The program already hosts annual high school tournaments to help in recruiting.
“In the future, [the scholarships are] something we want to use to reach out to local high schools and colleges to help find good players,” Spaulding said, suggesting the goal is for them to increase in number with help from an outside partner to help subsidize the efforts.
Cunningham grew up in Lubbock, Texas, and came to Fort Wayne in 2010 to study and play tennis at Indiana Tech. He became Indiana Tech’s esports coach in 2019 and was one of more than 30 applicants for PFW’s position. He previously used his psychology degree in community counseling programs.
Another goal for Cunningham is to eventually see the program host its own invitational, possibly with teams throughout the Purdue system or the Horizon League, which PFW’s athletic teams compete in.
Esports’ influence continues to grow outside the varsity program as well. With 21 gaming-ready work stations located in Walb Student Union, Room 221, the esports lab is open throughout the day for non-team members to participate until the varsity practice and games start at 6 p.m.
“Most esports college programs don’t allow anyone other than team members to play on their machines,” Spaulding said. “We think it’s pretty cool to give students the opportunity to do that.”
More than 40 students use the lab on most weekdays. There are also more than 400 recreational players on campus who take part in a Discord group, which is essentially Microsoft Teams for gaming, allowing PFW students to chat and play together from anywhere.
“This is what they are doing between classes, and they are staying on campus,” Cunningham said. “I would have killed for something like this when I was an undergrad.”