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South Dakota collegiate esports program begins its first year, competes nationally

Students sit in front of computers playing video games
John Nguyen

Dakota State University students Morgan Garber and Liz Gwaltney loved playing video games growing up, and now they’re competing at the highest level in the esports collegiate scene in South Dakota.

DSU is in the middle of its first season as a competitive sport this fall—and Garber and Gwaltney are playing as athletes.

“It’s really built up my skill, being able to play with other players and getting feedback and then learning how to play different playstyles,” Gwaltney said. “It’s a different experience when you’re playing with the same people over and over again.”

Since the beginning of the semester, the DSU esports team has grown considerably after transitioning from a club.

“We held tryouts for the first week for six titles,” said DSU head of esports Andy Roland. “Each game had 25 to 30 people try out for them, so we have a ton of interest on campus.”

The university incorporated an esports program to its athletics department this year and hired Roland in June to start up the program. Roland previously chartered an esports organization at his alma mater, Texas Christian University.

DSU has varsity teams playing Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Hearthstone, League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League, Smite and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege, with more than 92 students playing varsity and junior varsity in the program.

But of those playing, Garber and Gwaltney are the only women on their teams.

Student plays video games on computer
Credit John Nguyen
DSU sophomore Morgan Garber logs on to play Smite, a team-based, third-person Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game

According to a report from the Entertainment Software Association, 46 percent of women play video games on average.

Even less make an appearance on a professional team’s roster.

With the prevalence of men in esports at any level, women get pushed out. But the inclusion of women in esports is growing.

“You’re always going to be assumed to be male,” Gwaltney said. “Always. We’re definitely outnumbered, but in my experience, I’m not treated any differently.”

“Women do play a lot of video games. Maybe not at this level of competitiveness or anything higher because of this weird line that’s drawn where it’s just all men on this side. It’s intimidating sometimes and sometimes women aren’t welcome in these spaces, but on a casual level it’s not even a big deal anymore. Women just play games.”

Gwaltney is a senior production animation major from Rapid City. She currently competes on the Overwatch varsity team playing the tank role—absorbing damage for their low-health teammates and serving as the team's frontline.

Garber is a sophomore sound design major from Pierre and is on the Smite junior varsity team, where she plays an ADC—or attack damage carry—a character that usually has low health but deals tons of damage.

Dakota State regularly competes against South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, the state’s only other official esports program. Both DSU and SDSM&T are the only program in the state to offer esports as an official collegiate program.

“There are other schools in the Midwest that are bolstering up their esports programs,” Roland said. “Other colleges are following suit.”

While this sport is not yet sanctioned by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics or National Collegiate Athletic Association, DSU participates on a national level with esports teams from across the country through competitive organizations like Tespa and the American Video Game League.

Between practicing and schoolwork, both Garber and Gwaltney are eager for more chances to compete—and it all goes back to the love of the game.

Originally from Shakopee, MN, John graduated from St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN, with a degree in Economics and Hispanic Studies.