HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — Playing video games competitively for a living is something people of a certain age may have fantasized about as a kid, but many never thought was a real possibility.

Not only have people been doing just that for many years now, but it’s even something that can be studied in college—in Kentucky.

What You Need To Know

  • NKU’s esports program has grown a lot since it started in 2020

  • NKU hired Shanda Harris, an NKU grad and avid gamer, as its new director

  • The program also recruited pro player Eli “Toastie” Nichols to compete on the varsity Rocket League team

  • Harris says programs like NKU’s are showing young people they can make a career in esports, and eliminating stigma attached to competitive gaming

Eli Nichols, better known as "Toastie," is the newest member of Northern Kentucky University’s varsity Rocket League team.

“Chemistry with your teammates definitely isn’t instant. You kind of have to build and have a lot of practice,” said Nichols, the team’s first professional player. Nichols was focused as he spoke while simultaneously practicing with his teammates. “Right now, the whole team’s grinding. We’re just playing on our own and stuff, and then probably start scrimmages and practices so we can play the other teams and get ready for the season.”

People might traditionally think of college as somewhere to go to get a degree so that they can get a job. Nichols is already a professional, but decided to go to school anyway. He’s a freshman at NKU, but already one of the top players in the university’s esports program.

“I have a love for Rocket League, and I love video games, and I’m good at it, so I figured why not join the team and play with my friends?” he said. “This program is really amazing. You get to make so many connections with people with stuff you love.”

Rocket League is a competitive video game with a simple premise: rocket-powered cars playing something closely resembling soccer. Yet, high-level play can be incredibly complex.

It’s one of the more prominent esports out there. NKU’s esports program gives students the chance to compete and earn credit toward a minor through the Haile College of Business.

NKU recently announced Shanda Harris as Esports Professor of Practice in the Haile College of Business and the new director of NKU Esports. An NKU grad and a gamer herself, Harris previously taught the esports management program that grew into the program it is now.

Harris now teaches in the Honors College where varsity esports is housed.

“My younger me would never believe this was happening. ‘Really? You’re doing video gaming?’ My parents were like, ‘get off that game, go outside, play, get some fresh air.’ And now, even explaining it to my parents, like, ‘yes, this is what I do for a living,’ it kind of still blows their mind,” Harris said. “I do think there’s still some stigma around gaming. A lot of people still think, oh they’re just playing video games. It’s not a sport. What are they doing? But behind that, in a way, it’s like traditional sports.”

Shanda Harris, left, says she hopes to continue growing NKU’s esports program. (Spectrum News 1/Sam Knef)

Harris said she wants to keep growing the program, which has already come a long way in the few years it’s existed. Her goals include branching more into the community and connecting with more gamers, as well as making esports more diverse.

“We’ve created a whole culture of inclusion,” she said.

The program offers scholarships, and Harris said she’s hoping it can offer more in the future.

Since fielding a three-person team in Rocket League during the fall 2020 season, the varsity program has now grown to include five different game titles and over 25 varsity players. Those games include Valorant, Overwatch, League of Legends, Fortnight along with Rocket League.

Nichols, the program’s first professional player, said he’s been gaming his whole life. He followed the path of his brother, who became a professional esports competitor before him.

“When I was watching him, I was like oh that looks cool, like I kind of want to do that. But I never thought I would be anywhere close to making money or being in the same spot as him,” Nichols said. “Around 13, 14, I got better and better. And then by the time I was like 16 or 17, I went pro.”

That’s a dream that’s now more attainable to more young people thanks to programs like NKU’s. It’s not just about competing. Students also learn the business and production aspects of esports.

“You don’t have to be an avid gamer or a top gamer to actually be in the esports industry,” Harris said.

The varsity Rocket League team also happens to be pretty good. 

“Pretty good? Our Rocket League team is the best. I’m gonna put that out there. I brag about them,” Harris said.

It’s at least a top 30 team in the county by Nichols’ estimation. He said he hopes to contribute to improving that ranking even further.

“My teammates are juniors. So they’ll be gone in about two years. So I’ll have to lead the next generation of the Rocket League team, so I’m excited for that in that future,” Nichols said.

The NKU Esports began in 2020, after students and staff received a $75,000 grant through the university’s Innovation Challenge. That grant helped build “The Sandbox,” which serves as the home arena for the program and was named Best Esports Venue by Cincinnati Magazine in 2021. 

NKU Esports will compete this fall in the games listed above. The program is a member of Esports Collegiate, the National Association of Collegiate Esports, and the National Esports Collegiate Conference. 

For more information on the Esports program at NKU, visit the website. You can also watch their matches live on Twitch.