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Esports pipeline taking shape in Wichita

Daniel Caudill
Teams practice and participate in matches at an esports suite that was built at Wichita State's Heskett Center.

The increasing legitimacy of esports has given gamers the chance to parlay their hobby into a college scholarship and, perhaps, a professional career.

It’s game night at Wichita State University, and members of the varsity esports team are practicing just before their match.

Inside the esports lab, there’s a lot of what you might expect from athletes in a traditional locker room: jokes, banter, discussions about the match ahead.

But in this case, the noise is also accompanied by video game music and the steady click-clack of controllers.

“Esports, for lack of a better term, is competitive gaming,” said Travis Yang, the new director of esports at Wichita State.

At 27 years old, he’s returning home to Wichita with years of experience in the esports industry on his resume.

At his first gig in 2018, he helped Ashland University in Ohio develop a varsity esports program - one of the first 60 in the country. In 2021, he worked as the first head esports coach for Texas A&M in San Antonio.

That experience is valuable to Wichita State as it prepares to launch a scholarship program for five different esports teams in the fall - serving as a potential boon to its enrollment.

“From an institutional level, the support I saw was tremendous,” Yang said.

And with WSU looking to recruit talent, schools in Wichita and the surrounding area are getting serious about esports.

Courtsey photo
Travis Yang was named the new director of Wichita State's esports program in December. He brings much-appreciated experience to the university, which plans to launch an esports scholarship program in the fall.

Wichita Public Schools adopted varsity esports at a district level this year and held its first city league tournaments this month.

In another first for the district, two students from Southeast have signed to compete with WSU Esports.

Students in high school can even take classes on gaming concepts.

“Wichita is truly ahead of the curve in that regard, at a national level,” Yang said. “There’s not very many school districts I can think of that have a commitment at that level.”

Shocker Esports competitor Henry Laflin said that kind of institutional support could have made a huge difference when he was a student at East High School.

Laflin competes by playing Super Smash Bros., Nintendo’s flagship fighting game. He learned the game on his own by playing with friends or online against strangers.

“Esports like this takes a lot of knowledge and real fine reaction times,” Laflin said. “So just being on your own, it’s really hard to keep up with some of the people who have been grinding a lot.”

Fortunately for the next generation of esports competitors, teachers like Michael Packard at Derby High School are working to make sure they don’t have to go it alone.

Packard has sponsored Derby’s esports program for two years. Everything he knows about the industry, he learned on the job.

“I think I got the gig because of my cat-herding abilities,” Packard said. “I’m not a gamer by nature. I last played ‘Rock Band.’ ”

The Derby program started during the early stages of the pandemic, which allowed players to get a feel for the competition while playing at home.

But as the program wraps up its second year, Derby Public Schools has committed to developing an esports lab at the high school - equipped with high-end computers that can run the games they need.

Moving forward, Packard said he wants to see the district create its own esports pipeline for students before they even get to high school.

“Every athlete in Derby, especially the boys that play football, they’re playing football since kindergarten,” he said. “They go to Panther Pride every summer, so why wouldn’t we have a summer skills camp?”

Daniel Caudill reports on Kansas state government for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service.