Students compete in an EA Sports Madden NFL 21 tournament Sept. 14 in the new esports lab on the third floor of the J.W. Jones Student Union. The lab's grand opening is expected to be within the first few weeks of October.

In 2017, after two years working as the coordinator of leadership and development for Residential Life at Northwest, Paul Bennett was adamant about a few things in life.

Namely, his wife, dog and love for video games.

In an attempt to share his admiration for video games with students at Northwest, Bennett had one aspiration.

“One way or another, we’re gonna have esports here in a year or two,” Bennett said his thought process was in 2017.

As of this semester, on the third floor of the J.W. Jones Student Union, there is an esports lab for the new program that Bennett, alongside Coordinator of Sports Clubs and Competitive Sports for Campus Recreation Jordan Mehl, has had in the works for years.

It’s a foundation that was laid by Bennett’s initiation of the Fighting Gaming Club, in which he was aided by Northwest alumnus Collin Siebert. The club didn’t start with Fortnite, Call of Duty, or really any of the other most popular games of today’s current generation of consoles.

Instead, Bennett said, it started with Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros., which made its debut on the market in January 1999. The Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter series were among the other games that Bennett mentioned.

Mehl joined Northwest as an employee in May 2019. And, in some ways, he became the second driving force behind the push to get an esports program at Northwest.

Mehl’s position, coupled with his eagerness towards the idea of an esports program, allowed the Fighting Gaming Club to be rebranded in an attempt to move the club to an affiliated club sport through Northwest.

It wasn’t Mehl’s initial intention to become affiliated with esports, although he said it was frequently mentioned in his interview. He wasn’t fully aware of all of the specifics that accompanied the territory until attending esports conventions, he said.

Two months after being hired, Mehl was directed to make a push in the esports department. A little more than a year later, he is a part of the group that has the program with its own space on campus.

“The entire process has just been really interesting to see,” Mehl said. “Just how we had to find the dedicated space, what all goes in technology wise — all that — it’s just really crazy that a lot of people don’t know.”

Bennett’s and Siebert’s efforts were needed due to an absence of esports in Northwest Athletics. There were efforts to get the esports program as a direct affiliate with Athletics, Bennett said. And, Bennett said, Northwest Director of Athletics Andy Peterson is a big advocate for esports.

Bennett mentioned that Peterson used his position to try and make his own push for esports to become a part of Athletics, in which Northwest President John Jasinski was intrigued. However, Bennett said the biggest obstacle was something out of the control of anybody at Northwest.

“The reason is kinda simple, esports is not regulated by the (NCAA). Like, that’s not a thing,” Bennett said. “Therefore, it really can’t be under the Athletics umbrella very easily, at least not at a state school. … With regulations changing — I honestly go back and forth whether it will ever get under Athletics, I don’t know — I think it’ll be partnered with Athletics, but it’s too hard to regulate.”

Under Athletics, the program would have the opportunity to compete for NCAA-recognized national championships. With that, there’d be a set scholarship budget for the program as well to try and recruit talent.

The bright side to that is the program can participate in whichever events it pleases. And it doesn’t have to put forth efforts into recruiting to compete.

“Since no esports program in the nation is, like, ‘This is varsity and these are the rules for varsity,’ I can find three kids that want to play Rocket League — that can be the varsity team,” Bennett said. “It’s that simple. So, it doesn’t need that athletics drive. But, I very much appreciate the support from Athletics and Andy Peterson.”

Peterson's push is one that results in the program having its own section on Northwest's website.

For Bennett and Mehl, it isn’t about a personal accomplishment as much as it is implementing a program they believe is needed in today’s generation. And, they said, it’s most importantly about the opportunity that it’s providing for people that perhaps wouldn’t have the same chances without it.

“Seeing that passion and dedication, and seeing these students connect to each other that might not have found each other otherwise is awesome,” Bennett said. “Then having those students, who might not know each other, go and compete in something — that’s amazing and super cool.”

The esports lab is being put to the test with weekly events prior to its official opening, such as an EA Sports Madden NFL 21 tournament Sept. 15 and another undecided gaming tournament Sept. 22.

And so a little over two years into the process, the Northwest esports club is expected to have a grand opening for the esports lab in early October. With it accompanies a one credit hour class that will take place during the second-block with the intent of branching out to more students.

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