Akron Zips Esports Team: Q&A with Head Coach Michael Fay Jr.

Akron Zips Esports Team: Q&A with Head Coach Michael Fay Jr.

Whether you play Fortnite, Counter-Strike, or League of Legends, there could be a spot for you on the Akron Zips, the brand new esports team at the University of Akron. But just being a skilled gamer won’t guarantee you a spot on the team, you’ll need to be a well-rounded student, too. A-T is proud to be the exclusive audio sponsor of the University of Akron’s esports team, and we had the opportunity to learn more about the Akron Zips from head coach Michael Fay Jr. Read the full interview where Fay gives some insight into the exciting future of esports at the University of Akron.

As 2018 marks the official launch of the Akron Zips, why did the University of Akron decide to form its own esports team?

Here at The University of Akron, we are big believers in educating students through the lens of their passions. We firmly believe that when students have the opportunity to apply their academic pursuits to their personal passions, they are more driven, retain information better, and become better equipped to pursue professional compensation for their expertise. Collegiate esports has seen significant growth over the past couple years, and since we began exploring the potential of having gaming opportunities here on campus, we’ve been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the positive reception by students. These are students that have a sincere drive to pursue mastery in their gaming, as well as other aspects of their lives. We believe that by offering the opportunity for all gamers to pursue their passion for esports, we can contribute to a campus culture of mastery that can improve students’ lives and create a robust community.

Your team is essentially building the University of Akron’s Esports program from the ground up. What other aspects of the program will students be able to get involved in?

Students will have the opportunity to play games recreationally or competitively, with a fixed team or with a casual group of friends, but that’s really just the beginning of everything our program can offer students. Each club esports team is student-organized and offers students the opportunity to gain leadership experience around something they’re passionate about. In addition, the Zips Esports Network is a student organization that serves as a mock-esports organization and will provide opportunities to try their hands at the multitude of professions that surround the esports industry. What a lot of folks don’t realize about esports is that, although it’s growing exponentially now, the industry originally grew extremely organically. Many of the first professional teams, gaming livestreamers, tournament organizers, and content creators were really just teams of highly-motivated young people volunteering to make esports happen. The esports program will provide concrete opportunities for students to gain similar experience that can contribute to their resumes as they look to obtain a career after graduation. Finally, we’re looking to offer some of the first academic esports-related opportunities for students. Over this past summer, we were one of the first programs to offer an esports broadcasting class that trained communication students in the nuances of planning and executing programming for an esports audience. We anticipate many more opportunities along these lines over the upcoming years.

Are there cognitive, social, or other benefits that esports and the varsity program can provide for students?

Absolutely. Players in the varsity esports program gain many of the same benefits that varsity athletes gain from their athletic endeavors. The compete under intense pressure, so they’re constantly learning how to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate as a team under those extremes. The players also participate in a fitness regimen that helps them to improve their physical health, mental alertness, and confidence as someone who has agency over their own body and mind. The esports program also offers similar social and psychological benefits to gamers in our club and recreational programs. Oftentimes we hear from researchers, news pundits, and politicians about how digital media such as Twitter, Facebook, Netflix, or YouTube are degrading the social capital of our society. It’s not uncommon for video games to be included on that list. These digital media are not just extremely engaging, but they can also be extremely isolating. Like these other platforms, video games help to virtually connect people over long-distance, but video games have the distinct advantage of also being an activity that is so engaging that it brings people together in person to watch and play. Our program provides UA gamers with an opportunity to get out of their dorm room and actually meet some of their peers that share the same interests in person. We believe that this will have significant impact in improving their lives and overall satisfaction.

The team is currently recruiting recreational and collegiate players who will be awarded scholarships. What can students expect at tryouts? Can you offer any advice for prospective players?

As the head coach, there are three major criteria that I consider with every prospect for our varsity teams. The first is in-game skill. In most cases, the most reliable measure of in-game skill at face value is typically a player’s placement in the competitive leaderboards for their respective game. We examine performance over the course of the tryout process, but maintaining a high rank prior to applying is important. The next criterion that we value highly is previous competitive experience or comparable experience working with a team. The vast majority of competitive games can be played solo at home and you get matched with strangers who function as your teammates. For some of the highest-ranked players, this is the only experience they have playing their game and it’s a vastly different context than having to strive to improve with a fixed set of teammates over an extended period of time. Previous team experience is a significant indicator that you can work well with others and contribute to the synergy of our team. Finally, the most important criterion is academic performance. Our program requires all varsity students to maintain a GPA of 2.5 or higher and as the coach I use each student’s academic record as an indication of their time management skills and their priorities. I’d much rather field a roster of students who performed well in high school than a roster of students who barely passed, but are much higher skilled, because I know I can expect the former to pursue mastery in all aspects of their lives without letting one area fall by the wayside.

 Can you describe what a typical team practice consists of?

The practices vary quite a bit depending on the game, but in general most teams devote their practice time to online practice matches against other collegiate teams, review of previous games, discussion of the trending strategies in their respective games, team-building exercises, strength and conditioning training, and yoga.

What is the best gaming equipment and essentials when playing esports?

Speed, precise control, and accuracy are the three essential elements of esports performance. The nature of competitive video games necessitates that an electronic device separates the competitor from the simulated environment in which they compete. For this reason, when it comes to esports equipment there’s a constant race to make sure that the device you play on (such as a PC or console), the equipment you use to control your in-game play (such as a keyboard, mouse or controller), and the equipment you use to monitor the state of the games (such as a monitor or a headset). Each offer the fastest reaction time, the most precise control over your inputs, and the most accurate representation of how the in-game environment looks and sounds.

What are the most popular games in the esports world at the moment?

Currently, Fortnite is taking the world by storm and many anticipate that to become one of the largest esports once its competitive modes become fully fleshed out. The other long-term mainstays of the esports industry are League of Legends, Counter-Strike, and Dota 2. More recently, the games Overwatch and Rocket League have become very popular esports. I believe an esport to watch is Rainbow Six Siege. Ubisoft has made some significant strides to foster a competitive scene for that game and we have a lot of passionate students interested in competing in that game. 

What will the University of Akron’s esports arena look like for upcoming competitions?

The varsity arena is really our introduction to The University of Akron community. We want to make sure that we’re providing ample opportunities for students, faculty, and community members to learn what esports are, see the talent of our student population, and celebrate their achievements within this burgeoning new competitive scene. Anytime that our varsity teams are competing in a live competitive match for their respective league, our arena will provide the Akron community with a live venue with seating for them to see the players competing live.

According to the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), more than 50 colleges across the country have established varsity gaming teams in the past few years. How do you plan to stay competitive as this trend grows?

By our count, the number of colleges that have a declared varsity esports program is already much closer to 100 since NACE released that stat, which already gives you a pretty good idea of how quickly other schools are adopting these sorts of programs. Our goal is to create a legacy of excellence in esports performance that will entice the highest-skilled players in all of our varsity titles to choose UA when they choose to commit to pursuing mastery in their game. There are a variety of ways we intend to stay competitive with these other schools, but the comfort is that for now we are quite confident that we stand tall among the competition. While each of those colleges offer scholarships for the few students that make the varsity team as we do, there are very few that offer as robust competitive club and recreational gaming opportunities as we do simultaneously. This means that we’ve not only created a varsity program like all these other schools, but we’ve laid the groundwork for the growth of a gaming community that I believe will be unlike any other in country. This is something that will be hugely appealing to new incoming recruits to our varsity teams. They won’t be able to find fans like the Akron Esports fans anywhere else.

Is there opportunity for students to make a career out of esports after college?

 There is currently a small job market for careers related to esports, however that market is growing just as fast as the esports industry is growing. A huge challenge for esports employers is that it’s difficult to find candidates that have both a degree in a required field of specialization such as marketing, broadcasting, graphic design, business, etc. and an authentic understanding of the esports community. Many of the people who try to make a career in esports have either spent their adult life working tirelessly in the esports industry and never pursued a degree, or have a degree in their field, but are unfamiliar with nuances of the consumer they’re targeting. Our aim is to be one of the first and best programs in the country at providing students the opportunity to develop both these essential criteria simultaneously.

Can you offer any advice to students looking to become involved in professional and competitive esports?

The first piece of advice I’d offer is to get a degree. This is a new field with a lot of uncertainty and every employer is looking for assurances that you’re a reliable and knowledgeable professional. The second piece of advice is not to wait for people to start paying you to get involved in esports. The best way to get your foot in the door is to volunteer your time to an aspiring esports teams, business, or organization. And finally, the last piece of advice I’d offer is to know your worth and never work for free forever. There are plenty of businesses out there that would happily let you. Pursue your goals relentlessly, collaborate selflessly, and when your hard work meets the right opportunity, you’ll succeed by leaps and bounds.

 We are looking forward to a great season of esports this fall. Which video game would you like to play professionally? Comment below!

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