Esports varsity team discusses strategy

UND’s Strategic Play

By leveling up in Esports, UND is set to provide qualified professionals in related STEM fields.

Esports is one the fastest-growing industries in the world, and UND is playing a clutch role in North Dakota, launching the state’s first esports undergraduate degree in the fall of 2022. 

This interdisciplinary degree program is innovative, challenging, and at the cutting edge of new development in academic programming across the country, said Provost Eric Link when it was announced. 

The academic program is one of UND’s three esports offerings. The other two are varsity athletics, housed in a new facility, and a recreational program that started the University’s esports journey.

“The programs have the mutual goal to attract students who might not otherwise come to UND, maybe not even attend university,” said Jeff Holm, Vice Provost for Strategic Programming & Special Initiatives. “We are trying to use esports to draw people into areas of workforce need.”As universities evolve to meet the needs of current students, Holm explained that doesn’t mean getting rid of traditions; it does mean considering new things. “Esports is just one of those things.” 

Holm works as a liaison between campus leaders and community partners to meet student demand and address workforce needs. He also supervises the esports varsity athletics programs.

He added that esports programs attract male students, a population declining in higher education settings. 

Jeff Holm

Jeff Holm supervises the esports varsity athletics programs.

Academics: Esports is Interdisciplinary

Matt Knutson, who joined the faculty in August 2023, leads the esports degree program, which is housed in the Department of Kinesiology in the College of Education & Human Development. Knutson collaborated with departments across campus to expand options within the degree. He designed UND’s esports curriculum around a core of essential classes and specialized tracks, which allows students to tailor their education to their areas of interest.

“Esports is interdisciplinary,” Knutson emphasized. “Students are qualified for jobs in esports coaching through kinesiology. There’s streaming media production and social media through communication. There is the business side – esports entrepreneurship and sports business. We have information systems and world languages. That’s five different options with a sixth recently added in graphic design.”

The most popular specializations at UND are shoutcasting and streaming media production, but Knutson thinks that could change. “Once all the students know the full scope of the revised degree program, I’m curious what that distribution will look like.”

Students may major in or get a certificate in the fully remote esports academic program. The Esports Certificate was added this academic year, equipping students in other disciplines and varsity esports student-athletes with enhanced qualifications for esports-related jobs. 

Matt Knutson

Matt Knutson is director of esports academics.

Varsity Athletics: We’re here and it’s amazing

Varsity esports student-athletes practice in UND’s $1.2 million, 3,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility that opened in March 2023. This space houses 41 computers across three rooms: a practice room, a classroom for coaching and instruction, and a competition room. Students can study and relax in the lounge and produce and stream matches in the broadcast studio.

After the facility opened, the number of varsity esports athletes more than doubled: from 35 in spring 2023 to 75 in fall 2023. Twelve UND teams practice at least 12 hours a week on one of eight titles (games). “We used to be happy when UND was able to fill a team for a title. Now almost every title has a full team; some even have three teams,” said Varsity Esports Coach Ryan Kraus, who schedules regular season league games and tournaments, recruits players, picks titles, and guides team captains who serve as title coaches.

“Under the current staffing, we are pretty much at our maximum,” Holm said. “But we would like to be much more competitive; to have one very good, very competitive team for each title.”

UND is accelerating its esports recruiting process. “We have been focused on who’s graduating and looking at colleges,” Holm said. “We’re just starting to look at students in 9th and 10th grades.” 

Nexus was good when we had a much smaller program. But we started to notice growing pains.Ethan Taylor
ribbon cutting, ethan

Ethan Taylor joins Provost Eric Link (left) and Varsity Esports Coach Ryan Kraus at the ribbon-cutting for UND's new esports facility.

The new facility makes attracting students easier, but Holm said doing everything at once is difficult. “It’s a matter of having time to get things in place. We’ve gotten into some higher profile leagues, and we’re beginning to look at providing scholarship money.”

During its inaugural season in 2020, the team practiced on 12 computers at the Nexus Esports Lounge in the Student Wellness Center. “Nexus was good when we had a much smaller program. But we started to notice growing pains,” Kraus said.

UND junior and esports student-athlete Ethan Taylor said, “I was part of esports through the development.” He practiced at Nexus and the “Hyslop closet,” which housed six additional computers.

“Now, we’re here and it is amazing,” Taylor said of the new facility.

UND student-athletes and their coach say competitive gaming enhances social skills. “Esports athletes need to communicate and learn how to work with other people as part of the team,” Kraus said.

“I think our program has done a good job of being a very welcoming group,” Taylor added. “I’m a person of color in a small town in North Dakota. No one here is treating me differently.” 

Broadcast room

In UND Esports’ state-of-the-art broadcast room, students produce and stream matches, bringing the excitement of games to off-campus audiences.

UND Esports room

UND varsity esports athletes practice in UND's new facility, honing their skills for the competitive season.

Intramurals: It feels like a small community

UND’s club program, started in 2019, was the University’s entry into esports, the result of the work of a cross-sectional team of educators, administrators, and students. 

Kaleb Dschaak, ’20, at the time UND’s student body vice president, was a key part of the team. “At that time, not a lot of colleges were doing esports,” he said. “I was very proud to be a part of that incredible group to bring esports to campus. We had a lot of leadership at the table who were excited about this program.”

That group toured different facilities, gathered information, and opened the Nexus Esports Lounge in the UND Student Wellness Center. “The Wellness Center is really where it started,” said Dschaak, who worked there during his senior year. “The location was intentional to connect an activity known for anti-wellness to wellness.”

The name “Nexus,” defined as a series of connections linking two or more things, demonstrates UND’s desire for the space to bring people together and create a sense of community.

“Students who connect with our programming or use our space have gained connections and friendships. It feels like a small community for them,” said UND’s Campus Recreation Coordinator Braeden Mueller. He said many students take advantage of the location, often exercising or participating in different programming offered at the center. 

Mueller said Nexus has state-of-the-art gaming equipment. “One big thing we take pride in is our ability to connect all different types of gamers, whether that is the computer gamer, Switch gamer, or even Console through our programming and operations.”

Mueller stressed the recreational focus of Nexus. “This space is for every gamer regardless of skill level.”


The Nexus Esports Lounge is in the UND Wellness Center, connecting an activity known for anti-wellness to wellness.

Overcoming Stereotypes: Not all warm fuzzies

While Fighting Hawks gamers are developing friendships and learning communication and strategic skills, UND esports stakeholders recognize it faces some challenging stereotypes. 

“Gaming is not all warm fuzzies,” esports assistant professor Knutson said. “Historically, cis men are overrepresented in the competitive sphere, at the professional and collegiate levels, and in high school. Esports isn’t always a welcoming space for women, who commonly encounter gender-based harassment in gaming, especially online.”

Of the 75 student-athletes on the UND varsity team, nine identify as female. 
Isabelle Cross is a freshman on the varsity team. She said it can be uncomfortable playing games surrounded by guys. “But once you get used to the environment and focus on playing the game instead of, ‘I’m a woman playing the game,’ it’s so much easier.” 

She said being on the team has been a bonding experience and she shares many inside jokes with her teammates. “I don’t fit the stereotype that ‘gamers are weird’ so it’s easier for me to encourage others to join,” she said. 

Knutson and Allison Burkman, prevention and education campus coordinator for CVIC (Community Violence Intervention Center) at UND, have worked together to address the social factors that hurt women’s participation, delivering diversity and inclusion seminars to UND esports title captains and Wellness Center representatives. 

“Our training teaches participants how to respond to toxicity when it arises, and to harassment in person or through networked communication,” Knutson said.

“Esports is a type of competition in which brute force and brute strength are not relevant factors,” he continued. “As youth esports becomes more commonplace, we can achieve more gender parity.” 

Kraus agreed. “Traditional sports have a physical limitation barrier to access,” he said. “In esports, it doesn’t matter who you are, what you are, or whether you have some sort of disability; as long as you can move your hands and you can think, you’re fine.” 

Start-Up Phase: Get Esports on the Radar

Esports industry and university statistics indicate a history of rapid growth, but Kraus thinks higher ed is in the “startup phase” of esports. “It’s been around universities for about 10 years. But in the last five years, I’ve seen many colleges invest a lot more. I don’t know of a state that doesn’t have some sort of high school competition.” 

Holm agreed that esports didn’t have a presence until 10-15 years ago. “The biggest issue is trying to get it on people’s radar.”

In late February, the UND Memorial Union was the location for both the Minnesota and North Dakota State High School Esports Tournaments, run by an alumni-owned company called Fenworks. UND esports athletes helped with the event, guiding hundreds of enthusiastic and highly skilled high school gamers and their supportive families and friends throughout the weekend.    

The crowds are a sign of the growing appeal of esports among younger generations and their families. If the students stay on this trajectory, they may be future graduates of UND’s esports degree program and the next generation of workers helping to fill jobs in the $1.72 billion esports industry and related STEM fields. ///

State High School tournament

In February, UND hosted nearly 400 students from 48 high schools attending the North Dakota and Minnesota Esports State Tournaments. Fenworks managed the event.

Gamer Speak: Decoded

Gamers speak a unique language. UND Varsity Esports Coach Ryan Kraus and UND Esports Academic Director Matt Knutson, clutch* players in UND Esports, shared some terms spoken in their esports arenas.

*Clutch: A player’s ability to perform well under extreme pressure or in an important part of a match; the ability to win when winning previously seemed impossible.

Terms According to Ryan Kraus

Kraus, often around college athletes, offered casual terms he hears at practice.

  • AFK: Away From Keyboard. “People say it when someone isn’t doing anything,” Kraus said.
  • Casual: “This is a great term for people who like to play games but not very often,” he said
  • EXP: Experience point. A common term in gaming, specifically single-player games. It signifies a character’s growth, but is different from leveling up.
  • GG: Good game.
  • Grinding: Playing a lot.
  • Level up: Moving up to a higher level of the game and being rewarded with extra powers, abilities, strength, and/or weapons. “‘Level up’ has been around in gaming basically since it started, so many people understand it,” Kraus said.

Matt Knutson’s Glossary

Knutson recently finished a paper that includes a glossary. The terms he provided, like his position, are more academic.

  • Grassroots: A local and/or amateur scene in esports that holds competitions and events, serves as a community hub for players, and provides an entry point into the competitive sphere.
  • Mods: Modification of the base game, often using that game engine and its assets. Modifications range from simple graphical updates to full-fledged games with fundamentally different rulesets.
  • Observer: A member of production who operates an in-game perspective during a given match. It is the equivalent of a cameraperson in traditional broadcasting.
  • Overlay: A display of pertinent information that supplements the in-game video footage, including player names, scores, and/or timers, and other relevant statistics. It typically occupies the border of a screen.
  • Patch: A feature update to a videogame that introduces balancing and/or gameplay changes, either indirectly through fixing known issues (“bugs”) or tweaking certain aspects of the game.
  • Production: The team of workers in charge of creating streaming esports video for an audience of spectators.
  • Shoutcaster: Calls the action of an esports competition by describing events as they unfold and/or placing the game’s events into a comprehensible narrative.
Winning Valorant Team

UND Valorant team members Simon Mau, Ryker Ellingworth, Noah Tarbox, Netesh Kishan and Cooper Franks (captain) celebrate their NECC Games Challengers West Division championship. The team was undefeated in regular season play.  They’re pictured with their honorary team member, an owl that’s been watching over them all season. At left is the Nexus Esports Lounge in the UND Wellness Center.