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Not just a game

Speed read
  • E-sports are rapidly growing in popularity
  • These competitions require robust networks that many schools can’t currently provide
  • KINBER is working to equip universities with the tech they need to game on

What does competition look like to you? Do you imagine a sweat-glazed athlete, breathing heavily as she sprints her way up the field? Or are you thinking of dunks that defy the laws of physics?

How about someone sitting in a comfy chair, staring at a screen, while thousands cheer on their virtual avatar?

<strong>Varsity e-sports.</strong> Nearly 200 universities in the US offer officially recognized e-sports programs, including coaches and financial scholarships. Courtesy Lackawanna College.Despite being maligned for years as a passive hobby, gaming is currently maturing into the higher echelons of competition. The trend, known as e-sports, is rapidly gaining in popularity and is finally getting the recognition it deserves. That said, games don’t need recognition to function: they need network infrastructure. 

The Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research, or KINBER, is a Pennsylvania-based non-profit corporation that helps organizations with their broadband connectivity needs. Recently, they’ve seen an increase in universities interested in strengthening their network to facilitate competitive e-sports.

Jennifer Oxenford, KINBER’s director of research and community engagement, and Grant Dull, director of business development and operations, are both aware of the challenge presented by increased attention to e-sports in higher ed. We sat down with them to better understand what e-sports competitors need as well as just how popular this trend is.

Here to stay

Somewhere out there, a stereotypical jock is making it absolutely clear to anyone who will listen that e-sports aren’t real sports. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong, but the fact of the matter is that competitive gaming is more popular than ever. 

During our talk, Dull pulls up a program called Twitch Tracker, which gives information about the popular e-sports-watching platform. On a Wednesday at 11:00AM EST, more than three million people were watching e-sports via Twitch. 

<strong>Network needs.</strong> Institutions with e-sports programs have to offer a robust network infrastructure to participants. Even a few milliseconds of latency could cost a competitor—and their school—the game. Courtesy Northwood University. What’s more, colleges are starting to understand the value e-sports players can bring to their schools. In the 2018-2019 school year, around $16 million in scholarships were offered by nearly 200 universities. Clearly, this isn’t a passing fad. 

“My viewpoint is that e-sports isn't going away,” says Dull. “It's growing at such a rapid rate. I think right now from a collegiate level, a big question is, how's it going to be organized?” 

One big concern is network infrastructure at the host institutions. As Dull points out, one of the biggest headaches is latency, which is the time it takes for a request to go from the source to the destination.

When you’re watching a movie, high latency is an annoyance. But when you’re competing in a tournament with your school’s reputation on the line, even a few milliseconds of latency can cost you the whole game. 

Universities and colleges must also make sure their networks are secure. Big e-sports competitions are enticing targets for hackers.   

“One of the areas that we must think about is the security space, “says Oxenford. “So not just bandwidth and low latency requirements but the ability to provide high security for competitive e-sports so that you don't have something like a distributed denial of service or some other security event that would cause an issue.”

One way KINBER is attacking the security problem is by using the Science DMZ architecture. These computer subnetworks facilitate data transfer in a secure way without sacrificing performance. The technology was developed to transfer large scientific data between institutions, but it’s now found a new home in the world of e-sports.

Warm up game

Creating infrastructure around something as new as e-sports is an immense challenge. To get the ball rolling, KINBER offered an e-sports pilot program to universities in Pennsylvania. They developed KINBER E-Sports Direct Connect (KESDX), a service that helps establish a dedicated connection between high-end gaming networks and a university’s internal network.

<strong>Pennsylvania non-profit KINBER</strong> helps universities establish a dedicated connection between high-end gaming networks and the institution's internal network.  “Nobody had created a service like KESDX before,” says Dull. “At first, we offered essentially a free pilot program, which has now become KESDX. A number of schools said they were interested, so we set it up. It doesn't take that long from an engineering perspective to turn somebody up on the service. And then we just sort of let it go for a couple months. The schools that we worked with varied with their needs from an e-sports perspective, and they were at different stages.”

The success of the program, combined with the interest shown by Pennsylvania schools, proved to KINBER that this was a marketable product with high demand. The organization is currently working to expand the availability of KESDX.

However, this trend isn’t all about network speeds and infrastructure. Despite all the technological know-how required to make e-sports run smoothly, there’s something deeper here that Oxenford feels deserves recognition. 

“For me, one of the really exciting things about e-sports is the equalizing factor that it brings,” says Oxenford. “It provides a social and team opportunity for kids who traditionally weren't considered athletes. They now have a place on the digital playing field. We're excited to be part of it and to be supporting institutions in Pennsylvania that are actively promoting those opportunities for kids.”

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