The University of Kentucky has long been known for its milestones on the basketball court. For almost two years now, the university has taken strides in formulating what might be its next successful sports program: esports.
Heading into 2020, Kentucky has partnered with Gen.G and JMI Sports to allow the esports organization to help develop the university’s esports and gaming program. The program is included in the Wildcats’ Smart Campus Initiative, which previously provided all first-year students and many of its faculty with an iPad Air, Apple keyboard and Apple Pencil. The Smart Campus Initiative is also utilized by the university to develop and enhance its technologies throughout its teaching, research, service and health missions.
With UK, Gen.G will be providing new pathways for student recruitment and classroom and internship opportunities. Jointly led by the Kentucky’s Student and Academic Life and Information Technology Services, it also introduces research avenues for students across the university’s various colleges as well as professional development for alumni.
“We were very attracted to the values of [Gen.G], where they have invested their resources and where they’re going as a company,” University of Kentucky Vice President for Finance and Administration Eric Monday said. “There was a goodness of fit that they could bring expertise, they can bring a knowledge of the field and they’re also acting on their belief structures in real ways.”
The Gen.G-UK relationship will look to strengthen three pillars: academic, community, and professional development.
Before 2020, the university and Gen.G will host periodic, on-campus speaker series featuring leading gaming and esports executives, gamers and content creators. The series will also feature content intended for students and alumni from relevant majors and degree programs. Going forward, Kentucky will begin discussions on potentially new academic program and the possibility of a gaming-focused certification program.
To better inform its local youth in the state of Kentucky about esports’ potential, UK will initiate an open platform for in-state high schools to give teenagers early insight into careers within the global gaming ecosystems. The platform debuted with gaming-related programming at university open houses this fall.
Other programs will also further UK’s public service and philanthropic efforts. One initiative is DanceBlue, a year-round fundraising effort that culminates in a 24-hour no sitting, no sleeping dance marathon. The other comes via Gen.G’s inaugural Player Wellness Campaign with Simple Habit and LA Fitness, which was launched in September and aims to educate its players on better financial, mental and physical practices.
Beyond that, Kentucky and Gen.G will continue to design the Innovation Lab. Scheduled to open during the fall 2020 semester, the lab will hold additional parking and retail spaces, and promote creativity, technology, and entrepreneurship in the university’s expanding innovation corridor.
In growing the next generation of esports experts, UK will be hosting its first-ever university conference serving the gaming and esports industries. Hoping to debut during the spring 2020 semester, the event will have relevant thought and business leaders to discuss important topics surrounding these fields and guide college students into tech-focused careers in gaming.
Most recently, UK held its inaugural Wildcat Alumni Gaming and New Media Series event in New York City during the week of November 4. It helped connect alumni in major cities across the United States with gaming and esports leaders – and will take place in other locations throughout the academic year.
“We see a way for almost every element of the campus to participate in this initiative as they deem appropriate,” Monday said.
Beginning in 2018, Monday began meeting with numerous esports companies to discuss potential partnerships. Those initial discussions led him to Gen.G – and even a visit to one of its three corporate locations in Seoul.
During those early talks, Monday was particularly drawn to Gen.G’s progressive stances. Created in 2017 by co-founders Kevin Chou and Kent Wakeford, the company has made waves by working with mobile dating app Bumble to form the first all-female Fortnite team. It then followed with its Player Wellness Campaign and its holistic approach to improving the quality of life for its gamers.
“We wanted to start by working a truly progressive university with unique characteristics that are inclined to look at the bigger picture and to think a bit bigger than early collegiate esports investments have created,” Gen.G CEO Chris Park said. “In that regard, the University of Kentucky is I think a perfect fit – they’re in the middle of long-term strategic planning that well predates the relationship with Gen.G.”
“It’s been about positioning the university as a true leader of thought and impact both within the state and around the world,” Park added. “And an appetite to make an impact beyond the areas in which the University of Kentucky has traditionally been most powerful or best known.”
With the rapid ascension of collegiate and professional esports, more universities and organizations are looking to capitalize on the trend. Manny Anekal, founder of The Next Level Media – which covers the esports business – sees the UK-Gen.G partnership as being mutually beneficial for both parties.
Courtesy of Gen.G, Kentucky has access to new opportunities for student recruitment, internship, and full-time positions, research potential, and alumni professional development, said Anekal.
Anekal noted that other colleges and partnered with esports organizations in the past. For example, in April 2018, NRG Esports and the San Francisco Shock became the premier sponsor of the University of California, Berkeley’s esports program.
Colleges are also investing in esports scholarships – at least 200 schools currently offer them, compared to just one school in 2014, said Anekal. Because of Cal Berkeley and Kentucky, he believes that this is just the beginning of higher institutions and esports organizations working to further accelerate esports’ domestic growth.
“I believe that we will see more partnerships between esports companies and colleges,” Anekal said. “It’s beneficial for both parties: colleges get partners within the esports [industry] for expertise, sponsorship, technology, and potential donations. For esports companies, it’s a great marking move in addition to potential future recruiting opportunities.”
“Partnerships like these will help collegiate esports evolve even further,” Anekal added.