By Harry Minium

Marshall Burkett is a 23-year-old former Marine, so you know the guy is in great shape.

He’s also passionate about his game. He’s logged more than 4,500 hours developing the mental stamina he will need and the strategy he will employ to score more goals on a soccer field than his opponents.

And he can’t wait to put on his Old Dominion jersey and represent his University.

But Burkett doesn’t compete for the ODU soccer team. He is a member of the University’s varsity Esports team, which begins its first season this month. It is the only varsity Esports team at a public four-year school in Virginia.

Burkett’s game of choice is Rocket League, a video game in which cars battle on a soccer field to score goals. It’s a lot more challenging than it sounds, and that goes for Esports as well.

Although not truly athletic competition, Esports is the fastest-growing competitive sport in colleges and universities. It is also exploding nationally on the amateur and pro levels, with some competitors making millions of dollars in tournaments televised by ESPN.

ODU will compete this fall and spring under the auspices of the National Association of Collegiate Esports. More than 160 colleges and universities have Esports teams, and the list is growing.

Although Florida State, Oregon, Missouri and Utah, have varsity Esports teams, size doesn’t matter here. Maryville University of Saint Louis, Robert Morris and Cal-Irvine are among the nation’s Esports powerhouses.

ODU’s Esports program has many advantages as it kicks off its first season.

It has the strong support of the University officials, including Don Stansberry, interim vice president of Student Engagement & Enrollment Services, and Coulson Thomas, interim director of wellness and recreation at ODU.

Stansberry and Thomas tasked Grant Deppen, an assistant director of intramural sports, to get the Esports program going. The University also is building a 2,400-square-foot gaming center on the second floor of the Webb Student Center.

When complete, it will provide stations for dozens of players. Although social distancing likely won’t allow the room to be occupied this semester, it will provide ODU’s Esports team with a first-class facility.

Games will be livestreamed via and eventually will be seen on screens on the first floor of Webb Center.

Although Deppen did little recruiting, more than 100 players are expected to try out for spots on the Esports team, which will compete in 13 games in its first season. Games will be played on PCs, Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo Switch.

Most of ODU’s players major in STEM-H, especially sciences and technology. “Our players are very focused and very high-performing students,” Deppen said.

Many are majoring in one of the two undergraduate degree programs that the College of Arts and Letters began last fall in game studies – game development and criticism and game design and criticism.

But not all are high-tech people. Burkett has a double major in philosophy and political science. He hopes to become a business attorney.

He began playing Rocket League in the barracks when he was a Marine. When he left the military – he was honorably discharged after breaking his hip – he bought a computer with a high-powered video card and took up the game seriously.

“I fell in love with Rocket League,” he said. “The game is far more difficult to play than it sounds. There’s a lot of strategy involved.

“I love competing against other people. In many ways, it’s not very different from athletic competition.”

Leon Tang, a senior IT major, said he played video games casually until some friends convinced him to start gaming with ODU’s Esports Club.

“Some people play video games to get away from people,” he said. “But I loved connecting with others who had the same interest.”

Tang said ODU’s Esports team, along with the game development and design degrees, will help attract students to the University.

“It will differentiate ODU from a lot of other schools,” he said.

The first competition kicks off on Sept. 28 with a game called “Overwatch.” Most games will include five or six ODU players competing against another team, Deppen said.

ODU’s Esports team members likely will play from their homes until the pandemic passes.

Deppen, who is working on his doctorate in public administration and policy, has been at ODU for six years. He said those majoring in games studies and design will have access to design software in the new Esports space at the Webb Center.

“It’s going to be set up for people to work on their courses or to use on their own projects while being around gamers,” he said.

Eventually, he said ODU will hold youth summer camps and that he’s networking with gamers from around the world who are interested in attending the University.

“Our program is unique in that we offer more game titles than any other program I’ve come in contact with,” he said.

And that jersey Burkett is eager to try on? Those are in the works, Deppen said.

He’s been talking with Under Armour. Given that this is a team of gamers, ODU may order some hoodies to go with those jerseys.

“We’re looking at some relaxed type of gear that we can design on our own,” Deppen said. “We can’t wait to get started.”

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