Columbia President leads the charge for esports

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COLUMBIA - In 2015, Columbia College launched one of the nation’s first collegiate scholarship esports programs. Now, there are 40 similar programs nationwide. Even with the expansion, Columbia finds itself amongst the best thanks to the continued support of the school’s President.

Two years before the program launched at Columbia College, the school inducted Dr. Scott Dalrymple as its 17th President. Dalrymple, however, decided to celebrate his induction with something no college president had ever done: a video game tournament.

“I said if you can beat me in Madden NFL, I'll buy your textbooks for a year,” Dalrymple said. “We had a big tournament. Of course, the funny thing was I wasn't any good. I'd actually never played Madden NFL.”

Columbia College was forced to cap the number of entrants for the tournament due to the excited response. While Dalrymple loved the excitement, the result was bittersweet. He lost the challenge and made good on his promise.

The real result of the tournament, however, was more than free textbooks. Dalrymple had uncovered a passion at his new school. He started to look into how to channel this love of video games and quickly came across a growing trend.”

"We started to hear about esports and this new thing,” Dalrymple said. “We started to look into it, what is it? Is it something we could do at a high level, and we decided yeah we think we can. It was something that, frankly, I decided I wanted to do but I didn't know how to do it.”

While Dalrymple pushed for the new program, not everyone else was as passionate for the idea.

“The entire community was not strong for this idea,” Dalrymple said. “There was definitely some eye-rolling going on both in the community and I think sometimes on campus."

Despite the pushback, Dalrymple began to build the program and prospective students began to take notice.

"My dad actually told me about this program here,” sophomore esports athlete Jonathan Song said. “He was like, 'Oh, John, you play League of Legends. This college is giving out scholarships for the game that you play. Why don't you check it out?’”

"When I was in high school, I was thinking more of basketball and other sports,” sophomore esports athlete Dean Wood said. “I just kind of played video games on the side. It was probably my senior year I found out collegiate esports started to be a thing."

When it comes to who helped build the program, the players are very aware of how much Dr. Dalrymple did to make the esports team a reality.

"He's the one who, when I first toured at Columbia College, showed me his office,” Song said. “Without him we couldn't do anything. I love having him on board."

What separates Columbia from many competing programs is the school’s willingness to treat the program just like any other sport.

"At Columbia College, it feels like there's a much greater drive to integrate within athletics and the athletic department in terms of our esports team,” Team Strategic Analyst Drake Porter said. “Basically, we just get the same resources they do. We're held to the same expectations they are. It forces us to be a bit more serious and focused and disciplined in that way."

Dalrymple says this new publicity has done wonders for Columbia College.

"I think most people would agree it's been a good move for us,” he said. “It's gotten us a great deal of attention. More importantly, it's brought some diversity in students. We have students that come here from all over the country who wouldn't have been here otherwise. I think that it adds to the coolness factor of being on this campus."

While many still doubt the power of esports, Dalrymple contends it has the same impact at his school as other popular sports across the country.

"I think esports has really helped our overall image,” he said. “I think it's a halo effect. I equate it to football at Mizzou. The vast number of students who go Mizzou are never going to play football. They know they can't play football, but they like being around it. It's something neat to be a part of if only by extension. I think that's what esports is becoming for us."

Now, Dalrymple and the school are looking to build on the success the eports team has had.

"We're considering the possibility of adding more games to our repertoire,” he said. “We're not going to do it right away. We want to do things well.”

For now, the school is focusing its work in community outreach to show fans and prospective students alike the power of esports.

“One of the things we did last year, in April, we started the 'Midwest Campus Clash’ which was, as far as we know, the biggest gaming event in the entire Midwest,” Dalrymple said. “We had a big turnout.”

This year the school is planning on making it even bigger.

“We're going to have really neat virtual reality experiences,” he said. “We're going to have my favorite: ridiculously huge Donkey Kong. We're going to once again have major tournaments with at least a $25,000 prize pool this year. It's just a great time for the whole family."

This year’s “Midwest Campus Clash” is set for April 7th starting at 10 a.m. and the school is expecting at least two or three thousand to attend.