Cornell creates space for gaming community
By Caitlin Hayes, Cornell Chronicle
As a freshman at Cornell, Zachary Schecter ’23 would meet his friends at the computer lab to play team-based video games and prepare to compete against other schools – but they wouldn’t use the computers in the lab.
“We would bring our laptops because the computers were terrible for gaming,” said Schecter, a computer science major in Cornell Engineering and the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science (Cornell Bowers CIS). “We just went to the lab because it was a place we could play together.”
Thousands of students at Cornell find community by playing video games, with at least six student clubs dedicated to gaming. But until now, that community has not had a designated space to gather.
With financial support from Schecter’s family, Student and Campus Life (SCL) will open the Esports Gaming Lounge in the Robert Purcell Community Center on March 21, with a grand opening celebration from 3 - 5 p.m. The lounge creates a space for students on campus to play, watch, compete and connect, and provides support for the growing interest in esports – competitive multiplayer gaming.
“Video games in general are really important for our generation,” said Chloe Chu ’24, a computer science major in Cornell Engineering and Cornell Bowers CIS, and vice president of Esports at Cornell, a student group that supports and promotes competitive gaming on campus. “Older generations would get together to play board games with their friends, and it’s very similar, just through a different medium.”
Students from Esports at Cornell were instrumental in helping SCL stock and design the lounge, which will include state-of-the-art gaming PCs. A lounge space with TVs and seating will allow students to livestream matches for watch parties and play games together on consoles. The lounge is open to all students for drop-in play and can be reserved for tournaments and events.
“We are thrilled to meet these students’ needs and provide a place where all students who like to play games can connect with one another on campus,” said Jenny Loeffelman, assistant vice president of SCL. “It goes far beyond gaming – this is how our students are connecting with one another, having fun and finding community. For many, it’s a great way to de-stress and relax.”
Matthew Schecter, Zachary Schecter’s father, said Cornell’s support for esports in particular is forward-thinking, as the landscape for youth and student athletics changes.
“With all the head injuries in soccer and football, I know a lot of parents who don’t want their kids to play those games. And you’ve got more and more [NCAA] Division I schools offering esports programs and scholarships,” Schecter said. “Cornell is putting a stake in the ground in supporting esports, which I think are going to get more and more attention.”
Esports at Cornell
The student-run Esports at Cornell club serves as a community hub for students interested in competitive gaming. More than 1,300 members are part of the club’s channel on Discord, a social platform for communicating and connecting around gaming, with hundreds of students active on the channel at any given time. The club coordinates teams for numerous multiplayer games, with opportunities for varying levels of competition.
Two of the teams, for the games Overwatch and Valorant, currently compete in tournaments run by the National Association for Collegiate Esports, and can hold their own with many teams that have official varsity status at their universities.
All five players on the Overwatch team, coordinated by Schecter, have earned the top “grandmaster” rank as individuals, with three players ranking in the top 100 on the global leaderboard. A student coach for the team, Sam Fulmer ’24, an applied economics and management major in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, held a paid coaching position (as a high school student) for a number of teams in Overwatch Contenders, analogous to the minor leagues in baseball. Still, Schecter describes their play as casual: The team tries to scrimmage once a week, and they play other schools most weekends.
“Even when it’s unbalanced, and we’re playing against teams with players who are all on scholarship, it’s still fun,” he said.
In addition to highly skilled or competitive players, the club is open to anyone interested in playing or watching team-based gaming. They host informal intramural tournaments as well as watch parties for the Cornell teams’ games, for tournament playoffs and finals, or professional games.
“Esports, just like regular sports, fosters large communities,” said Jake Qi ‘23, an information science major in the College of Arts and Sciences and Cornell Bowers CIS, and president of Esports at Cornell. “Playing the games and watching others play, learning how to get better at a game, all of these things really help form communities.”
“It’s also a creative outlet for people,” Chu said. “I started out as a graphic designer for the club, making the announcement posters and other things, so people who don’t even play competitive esports can get involved. It’s a great way to meet other people who come from different backgrounds. It provides a common ground of things to talk about and fosters faster friendships.”
The group also benefits from the broader growth of esports, with gaming companies often providing prizes at Cornell-hosted tournaments or giveaways at watch parties.
For Schecter, esports provides opportunities for teamwork and skill, similar to a traditional sport.
“It’s fun to plan out the fight, work together and see the plan come together,” he said. “We’re strategizing and making quick decisions, and it’s really satisfying to make a good play, to take out an enemy team or to play support and save your teammate just in time.”
More than a game
For a number of students, participation in esports or playing video games also serves as an important complement to their academic pursuits. Approximately 30 students a year complete a minor in game design as part of the Game Design Initiative at Cornell (GDIAC), a program housed in the Department of Computer Science at Cornell Bowers CIS.
Interest in game design is high; Walker White, senior lecturer, Stephen H. Weiss Provost’s Teaching Fellow and director of the GDIAC, said he has to turn away two out of every three students who apply for his courses.
Schecter, who minored in game design, said his experience as an esports player helped him excel in his courses for the minor and especially helps him now as a teaching assistant in those courses.
“My job as a T.A. is to critique students’ games,” he said. “When I’m in that feedback mode, knowing all the games I’ve played, that experience is super helpful because I can point out different issues with design and categorize games in certain ways that you wouldn’t be able to do unless you’ve actually played those types of games.”
Schecter’s playing also helped him secure his first job post-graduation: He’s signed a contract to work as a graphics engineer for Blizzard Entertainment, the creator of Overwatch and other popular games. Loeffelman and White said Schecter is among a growing number of Cornell students entering the gaming industry.
“Our students are the future professionals in this field,” Loeffelman said. “They’re going to build the future of games for many years to come.”