By Laura McCaffrey
We’ve all heard the headlines about how COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in the sporting world: the midseason hiatus of professional leagues like the NBA, NHL and MLB; the cancellation of NCAA’s March Madness; the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics.
At the Canadian post-secondary level, the outlook for athletics has been equally grim. Earlier this summer, Ontario University Athletics (OUA) and other U Sports conferences made the difficult decision to cancel sports for the fall semester—a devastating blow for collegiate athletes and athletics departments alike.
But Carleton wasn’t about to take the hit lying down. Instead, it turned to partnership and community—as it has always done in times of struggle—to identify new opportunities.
Working with past and present members of the University’s esports—or competitive video gaming—club, Carleton has helped to develop and launch a first-of-its-kind esports league for Ontario schools: the Ontario Post-Secondary Esports (OPSE). The Carleton Ravens are leading the charge on this new partnership endeavour as a founding member of the league, which is set to kick off in the fall.
“With the cancellation of traditional sports for the fall 2020 season, the OPSE will provide an excellent engagement opportunity for Ontario post-secondary students,” explains Jennifer Brenning, assistant vice president of recreation and athletics at Carleton.
“It’s an opportunity for esports players to participate in school rivalries and compete at a high-level, and for fans to demonstrate their school spirit. That’s an important part of the post-secondary experience.”
While the launch of the league is well timed given the current constrains on in-person sporting events, OPSE was not conceived overnight.
In fact, OPSE league commissioner James Fitzgerald shares that talks began as early as last summer.
At the time, Fitzgerald was approaching graduation and was transitioning out of his role as president of Carleton’s esports club. The club—which Fitzgerald co-founded—is a chapter of Tespa, a North American network of collegiate esports students, competitors and club leaders.
Over the course of three years, the club grew significantly—with Carleton esports athletes competing in international competitions in the U.S., China and Korea.
“Due to elements like student turnover and funding and financial responsibilities, the club got to a point where it wasn’t sustainable as a fully student-run operation anymore,” Fitzgerald shares. “We started discussing with Carleton Athletics about the future of esports at Carleton and how we could take things to the next level.
“We realized there was a need for regional competition; even though we had played in tournaments around the world, we had seldom competed with schools like the University of Ottawa or the University of Toronto. Those close-to-home competitions are extremely important for school spirit and rivalry.”
In the face of the pandemic and impending restrictions on sporting events, the conversations were accelerated. A vacuum existed, James says, that would allow the group to move plans ahead quickly.
“It just made sense to move forward with a digital league when all the schools are digital right now.”
Sheryl Hunt, assistant director, marketing and brand strategy in Carleton’s Department of Recreation and Athletics, agrees.
“We’ve been wanting to put something like this in place for a while,” Hunt says. “We knew that there was a gap in this space in Ontario and we had an opportunity to do something new and innovative. We have been meeting with our on campus Tespa team for the last 18 months on collaboration opportunities, but it was always a ‘corner of the desk’ type of approach. Once the fall season was cancelled, we had the time, resources and urgency to put the bones of the league together.”
The Carleton and OPSE partners have kept busy since deciding to proceed with the league, focusing in particular on onboarding partner institutions for the inaugural season this fall.
“It has been a true partnership effort to get things off the ground,” says Fitzgerald. “The OPSE team comprises Tespa members and alumni, so we have valuable industry expertise. Carleton, on the other hand, has been extremely helpful in terms of networking; they’ve connected us and brokered conversations with teams from other schools so we could generate excitement and interest in the league.
“Having that initial outreach come from Carleton—and being able to lean on their existing relationships—has been instrumental in the process of getting new schools on board. It’s almost like a certificate of authenticity. It’s been fantastic working with Carleton, and frankly I don’t think this would have been possible without them.”
While deeply involved in the start-up process, Carleton will take a step back once the league is up and running.
“We’re all working as a group right now, as counterparts,” says Hunt. “Our potential partner institutions are pleased that we’ve taken the initiative to create this opportunity with the OPSE, but we will separate ourselves from the league’s leadership in the fall. We will be a member alongside our post-secondary colleagues, and we will leave the ownership, oversight and administrative duties in OPSE’s capable hands.”
On a global scale, esports have gained tremendous momentum in the past few years. But at the post-secondary level in Canada, it’s still a very new space.
Together, Carleton and OPSE are blazing a new trail—looking at community needs to innovate and establish an environment that benefits everyone involved.
“Thanks to collaboration and input from Carleton, we know we’re building something that schools need. This league will allow universities to stay connected with their students and other institutions,” Fitzgerald notes.
He continues: “For students who are interested in the esports industry—whether from the broadcasting, journalism, coaching or playing side—OPSE will create opportunities to supplement their academic experience that didn’t exist before. It will help build their experience and networks in the field so that they’re integrated into the larger esports ecosystem when they graduate. That will help the students stand out, and it will help set the foundation for industry growth.”
Hunt agrees, adding that the league will help schools spin an uncertain situation into a positive engagement experience. “In particular for first year students who can’t come to campus, we’ll be able to start fostering relationships from afar and build a sense of community, connection and Ravens pride in our strictly digital environment.”
At the Hub for Good, read more partnership stories, explore opportunities to get involved and learn how Carleton University makes an impact around the world.
Human Computer Interaction Building
1125 Colonel By Drive