For college esports, competition is only as good as the tech behind it | Industry

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This year, the global economy — the industry in which professional game players compete for real money and glory — will reach $905.6 million, and over 380 million fans are watching. In two years, we'll see esports blow up to a $1.4 billion industry — which Newzoo says is just a conservative estimate.

As egaming hurtles along this trajectory, everyone is looking for an in, from pro sports teams to device manufacturers. Educational institutions have seen an opportunity too, and are getting on board, promising to prep the next generation of esports players and make their academic game development programs more enticing.

The first varsity esports program, offering scholarships to League of Legends stars and up-and-comers, was launched back in 2014. In 2016, the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) was established. It now recognizes the esports programs of over 60 colleges and universities like SUNY Canton — the first varsity squad in New York State, and the first New York State esports team to join NACE.

An even greater number of unofficial programs are continually popping up across the country, and students are flocking to them.

But to satisfy this cohort of games enthusiasts eager to compete, universities need to build heavy-duty infrastructure that can help them put their lighting-fast connectivity where their mouths are, says Bob Nilsson, director of vertical solutions at Extreme Networks.

“An esports program is a key recruiting tool,” Nilsson says. “That comes back to the network. If the network doesn't support it as best it possibly can, they're going to lose recruits.”

The esports tech challenge

Esports are cutthroat, and a competition requires split-second decision making and breakneck action.

“Milliseconds matter,” Nilsson says. “If you're in the middle of an esports competition and the network puts any delay in at all, you're at a dramatic disadvantage. If you're surrounded and have to fight your way out, every millisecond you delay, you're taking hits. You really need total responsiveness there during the game, as well as throughput.”

Games are also one of the highest consumers of bandwidth, and most of these schools have just one pipeline back to the internet. IT departments need to be able to allocate and prioritize the traffic that goes out to the internet. Responsiveness and the throughput of a network has to be high, and arenas of every size need to be completely covered by wireless access points (APs), from training bouts to actual competition.

Spectators also need to be kept happy as they watch the streaming video feed; stutters and delays can mean an audience that sheds quickly, which makes advertisers unhappy too.

In depth, real-time analytics is key to mitigating connectivity issues before they arise. To ensure a gaming network is functioning at 100 percent at every moment, IT staff need to keep on top of unauthorized devices and rogue connections that can severely impact users, keep track of how bandwidth is distributed across the campus, and funnel connectivity to the most critical areas of the network.

Even when everything is functioning exactly right, sometimes things go wrong, Nilsson points out.

“Somebody might trip over a wire somewhere and you want to see exactly where that is and be able to fix the problem right away,” he says. “The analytics gets you a window into problems that are about to occur, or problems that just occurred, and lets you solve that right away.”

The SUNY Canton case study

In December 2017, SUNY Canton launched its esports course as an extracurricular attached to the game development and design program. The SUNY Canton team, which reports to the University's athletic director, dives into video game competitions at the collegiate level, in varsity and intramural matches for HearthStone, League of Legends, and Overwatch.

SUNY Canton has big plans for its program, Nilsson says, including specialized computer stations for practice and competition in a newly designed gaming arena, as well as plans to develop an esports wing in a residence hall with a gaming computer area adjacent to students' rooms. And they're doing it on a campus of 3,200 students and 450 staff members both online and off, which requires around-the-clock network support.

“When they got involved in esports, they knew the first thing they had to do was upgrade the network, and they didn't go into it halfheartedly,” Nilsson says.

They required a major equipment refresh to get ahead of end-of-life issues, and still needed to upgrade to current networking technology, including Wave 2 APs for greater bandwidth. Slashing operating expenses associated with the network infrastructure was also high on the “must-have” list.

They were also working with a single full-time network administrator on-staff, so they required a total network upgrade solution that folded in a 360-degree single-point operations view. And ease-of-use as well as support were both key in the IT department's decision-making.

For both current upgrades and future-proofing, last year the department tapped ExtremeAnalytics™. Ease of use was essential — particularly gaining a single point of view and empowering their single network admin to take care of the network on their own. Decision-makers in the IT department at the school also wanted the ability to troubleshoot and track application usage for a better view into how students interact on campus and how to optimize their experiences, as well as monitoring bandwidth usage simply.

“We haven't had to deal with any unanticipated outages or issues of any sort,” says Kyle Brown, assistant VP for IT and CIO, at SUNY Canton. “We also haven't had to add any additional staff, all while improving our infrastructure and future-proofing for upcoming initiatives.”

Getting esports-ready today

“Schools all across the country are in different phases of their life cycle,” Nilsson says. “Some may have just upgraded their networks, but others might be a year or two away, and they'd be at quite a disadvantage.”

That's where the analytics question comes into play, he adds. It offers a first look at what data is going across their network and where they can handle it. Once they switch on the analytics, they might find that the network link that goes into the classrooms or auditoriums where they're going to hold competitions may not be adequate for a full-fledged gaming environment.

Universities, colleges, and even K-12 schools need to look at the cost involved as well, from hardware, installation, and maintenance, to what can be the biggest drain on resources: IT management, or network management.

“We're told by our customers that analytics helped them with budgeting. They can see if the data throughput — the traffic — is going up and make sure they have the right requests in for budgeting to increase bandwidth in those areas of the network,” Nilsson says. “But it's really keeping an eye on what's going on in the network and preparing for changes there, as well as the new network standards coming along.”

Plus, advanced solutions like Extreme Networks' Smart OmniEdge™, an AI-enabled unified wired/wireless infrastructure for cloud or on-premise deployment, managed through a single pane of glass, are now emerging. Smart OmniEdge is harnessing evolutions in technology that can future proof the entire industry, as well as significantly reduce costs.

With artificial intelligence and machine learning built into the solution, APs can automatically self-tune to changing situations, which is vital in complex gaming arenas with continually changing Wi-Fi characteristics. A signal is impacted by a wide variety of environmental aspects, from how many people are in the room to what they're wearing. Machine-learned algorithms optimize RF characteristics on the fly across whole areas, ensuring that every user gets excellent responsiveness to their game controllers or their personal devices, wherever they are and whatever the conditions are.

Nilsson points out that with a network that's easy to manage — one that has the right dashboard, machine learning and AI built in, and analytics capabilities — it's possible to have a staff of one or two managing the network instead of a staff of five or more. At a cost of $100K – $200K per network manager, that reduces the ongoing cost quite a bit.

“We like to say they can put the cost into improved teaching, student learning, and student experience as opposed to the network,” he says.

For more information about Extreme Networks or its Smart OmniEdge solution, visit Extreme's website.

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