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Finding Your Wolfpack: Esports at NC State

The Esports Club empowers students to connect around gaming and build skills that intersect with their classes and careers. Now it’s giving them a front row seat to the expanding world of esports at NC State.

Members of the Esports Club pose for the camera in Hunt Library's Teaching and Visualization Lab.
Representatives of the Esports Club pose in the Hunt Library's Teaching and Visualization Lab.

Lilibet Lopez’s passion for gaming emerged from childhood moments shared with her siblings. From her living room sofa, Lopez watched her two older brothers — and eventually joined them — as they guided iconic video game characters like Mario and Master Chief through their interactive adventures.

Later, Lopez met her best friend playing Call of Duty online.

“It was really a key moment,” said Lopez. “When you’re a kid — especially as a girl — you can have a rough time playing video games online. But he seemed like a chill, easy-going guy. So I flipped on my microphone and said, ‘Hey,’ and we had a great conversation.”

When Lopez transferred to NC State from Wake Technical Community College in the spring of 2020, she was seeking a space where she could socialize with other students amidst the uncertainty of a global pandemic. After she discovered the Esports Club, a student-led community for gamers, the same friend she made while gaming online encouraged her to join up. Now Lopez, who’s set to graduate next spring with degrees in sociology and Japanese, serves as Esports Club president.

Two members of the Esports Club play a video game together in Hunt Library's Teaching and Visualization Lab.
The chance to shape an inclusive community drew Lilibet Lopez (right) to the Esports Club.

An interest in gaming also struck early for Jack Babcock. As a child, Babcock learned to read so they could play Pokémon on Nintendo DS without needing to ask their mom to translate the text on the screen.

“As I got older, I found competitive games, and got really into those,” said Babcock. “That’s what drew me to the Esports Club when I got to NC State.”

Two members of the Esports Club play a video game together in Hunt Library's Teaching and Visualization Lab.
Jack Babcock (right) was drawn to the Esports Club by an impetus to compete.

A sophomore majoring in business administration, Babcock serves as secretary of the Esports Club. While the chance to compete drove Babcock to join, and the chance to connect motivated Lopez, they’ve each found the club to be the perfect space to grow skills and forge friendships with others who share a passion for gaming and esports.

A Space To Grow Around Gaming

A form of online gaming where players face off in organized — and often monetized — competitions, esports is surging in popularity, spurred along by a global market that’s grown past $1 billion. Today’s highest-profile matchups are streamed live to millions of viewers through platforms like Twitch and YouTube, with professional commentators providing play-by-play breakdowns of the action. Top esports athletes can earn thousands — and even millions — of dollars in tournament prizes, sponsorships and scholarships.

NC State’s Esports Club, with more than 200 active members, fields eight competitive teams, each focused on a different game — including some of the most popular games around, like Valorant, Counter-Strike and League of Legends. Team members scrimmage together and compete in tournaments against other collegiate clubs and free agents. Students interested in competing can learn about opportunities by attending one of the club’s community nights — held regularly in different meeting spaces across campus — or by engaging with the club’s lively Discord channel.

“You can get on the Discord and just say, ‘Hi, I’m new here, and I’m looking for people to game with,’” said Lopez. “And we’ll say, ‘Hey, welcome, what kinds of games do you like to play?’”

Members of the Esports Club play a video game together in Hunt Library's Game Lab.
Laughter and celebration abound in the Esports Club, even when the competition heats up.

“I just showed up to community nights, and I tried out for a team and made it,” said Babcock, who’s progressed to lead the Esports Club’s Valorant team. “I love competing, so I just took it and ran with it to get to where I am now.”

Teams fielded by the Esports Club, including its Rainbow Six Siege and Smite teams, have won tournaments that have netted players thousands of dollars in cash prizes. But the act of competing often yields its own rewards. Babcock’s proudest achievement with the club involved scraping together a team at the last minute to compete in a local Fortnite tournament sponsored by Epic Games, where Babcock and their teammates beat out two collegiate teams to take home second-place honors.

Members of the Esports Club celebrate after a successful showing in a sponsored tournament.
Members of the Esports Club huddle up to talk strategy before a competitive match kicks off.

In addition to the chance to compete, the Esports Club allows members to link their interests in gaming to their courses and future careers. Intersections run from the obvious gaming-related fields, like game design and computer programming, to the not-so-obvious, like event planning and broadcasting.

“If we’re creating a website, that could be an opportunity for aspiring designers or programmers to learn about web design,” said Babcock. “If we design jerseys, that’s a way for people interested in textiles or fashion to get involved.”

“More people and companies are becoming aware of the weight esports has,” said Lopez. “There’s more partnerships developing, more content creation, and streamers on Twitch and YouTube are getting more popular. It’s just a growing field. If there’s something you want to do, there’s probably a way to connect esports to that.”

A Community Gamers Can Call Their Own

Beyond giving students an environment to compete and hone their skills, the Esports Club offers gamers of all backgrounds a community of kindred spirits. Lopez — who, as a female gamer, has faced taunting and intimidation in the traditionally male-dominated online gaming space — is intentional about using her platform as club president to ensure that every student who joins can find a sense of belonging.

 “In gaming, there’s a lot of different types of characters who have different backgrounds, different abilities and disabilities, and different identities. We want to reflect that in this club.”

“My goal with this club is to make it a community that’s a welcoming space for anybody,” said Lopez. “In gaming, there’s a lot of different types of characters who have different backgrounds, different abilities and disabilities, and different identities. We want to reflect that in this club.”

Club members often gather for casual gaming around perennial favorites like Minecraft and Pokémon, while team scrimmages attract spectators who have fun offering commentary on the competitive action. And formal meetings and informal meet-ups give students the chance to build in-person camaraderie.

“When you’re out on campus, and you see people from the club, you can say, ‘Hey, I know you,’ and you have that opportunity to connect,” said Babcock.

“I appreciate each and every one of our officers, all the players, they’re just great people and they’re really fun,” said Lopez. “They’re what make this club great — the people.”

A member of the Esports Club breaks down gameplay in a video game in Hunt Library's Teaching and Visualization Lab.
Club members have fun (and sharpen their instincts) by breaking down the action that happens on the screen.
Esports Club members collaborate in the Teaching and Visualization Lab in Hunt Library.
Juliette Chupka (right), vice president of the Esports Club, helps to chart and guide the club’s evolution and growth.
Esports Club members collaborate in the Teaching and Visualization Lab in Hunt Library.
David Waldron Jr. (left), content strategist for the Esports Club, manages the club’s marketing, design and social media strategies.

Since before the Esports Club formed in 2018 from a merger of several campus esports groups, students have spearheaded the growth of esports at NC State. Now leaders across the university and the wider North Carolina community are realizing the value of investing to elevate the Wolfpack’s student-powered esports ecosystem. Thanks to $16 million in support from the North Carolina General Assembly, NC State is poised to expand the footprint for esports on campus.

 “I think the arena will bring a lot of traction for NC State to be a leader in esports at a collegiate level, and even at the professional level.”

Partners across the university are working together to build a pilot gaming space — the NC State Gaming and Esports Lab — scheduled to open in the Hunt Library by spring 2024. And campus leaders — including Marc Hoit, vice chancellor for information technology and chief information officer for NC State, and Jill Sexton, associate director for digital and organizational strategy at the NC State University Libraries — have just launched the university’s official esports program, NC State Esports. It will be overseen by a newly hired esports program director, who will shepherd the program’s growth from within the Libraries’ Learning Spaces and Services department.

Members of the Esports Club — with support from Arnav Jhala, associate professor of computer science and the club’s faculty advisor — have helped guide these developments with input and advice.

“I think we’re all unanimously excited,” said Lopez. “We’re happy the university is asking us for input and listening to us. Because this club is established, and we have great relationships with other collegiate teams.”

The NC State Gaming and Esports Lab will enable faculty, staff and students to create research and learning around esports while refining design ideas and building momentum for a larger on-campus gaming space, the NC State Esports Arena, slated to open in Mann Hall in 2026. It promises to be one of the largest, most immersive collegiate esports facilities in the nation. Members of the Esports Club will no doubt play a pivotal role in bringing it to life.

“Fingers crossed it gets done before I graduate in 2026,” said Babcock. “I think the arena will bring a lot of traction for NC State to be a leader in esports at a collegiate level, and even at the professional level.”