UNL students gather in-person with masks for FIFA 21 tournament
"FIFA 21 tourney streaming now this rad crew." Photo by Professor Kaci Richter

Brian Petrotta sat among friends nearly 30 years ago. As they huddled around the TV, they all picked their favorite team in the latest NBA Live video game. 

But he wasn’t focused on winning; his plan all along was to lose the first round and spend the rest of his time broadcasting each game and covering the action that was about to transpire. 

Fast forward to the present day, Petrotta, one of the newest sports media hires at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, never considered that broadcasting a video game would be a career option today. 

“I realized I was born way too early,” Petrotta said. “Now there’s a whole industry for that.” 

The industry known as esports has a diverse connotation. The negative side being that video games are a lazy pastime, but as of recently, this competition-driven team sport in the form of interactive video games has brought in billions of dollars. 

It’s way more than just video games. When examining the realm of esports, Petrotta, who is currently finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma, is also researching how journalism fits into the esports playing field. This unveils a new world of opportunity. 

“There’s so much that goes into it,” he said. “It pulls from broadcasting. It pulls from digital journalism. It pulls from advertising, branding, marketing, PR. In fact, there’s probably a lot of growth in PR that needs to happen. For me, that’s why a college of journalism is the perfect home for esports.” 

Before Oklahoma, Petrotta began his collegiate journey at the University of Kansas where he started off studying print journalism. A relative involved in broadcasting piqued his interest in covering live sports. He found his journalism home on the radio as he jumped to calling minor league baseball out of college. This venture lasted eight years before he transitioned into sports information and PR at Wichita State University while broadcasting on the side. 

His schedule was packed as he worked many nights and weekends. He realized that if he wanted to spend time with his family, he needed to switch it up.

“I moved to Oklahoma State University and began to teach a PR class. I loved it so much I decided to go back and get my masters there,” said Petrotta. “To end up at Nebraska feels like I hit the lottery.” 

Petrotta will bring to UNL his Ph.D. in Strategic Communication where he hopes to incorporate his research on esports and how to implement effective media within. A student taking the course should be ready for a creative, project-based and hands-on learning experience in addition to hearing from esports athletes and industry professionals.

UNL is not the first college to try and get its foot in the door when it comes to involving esports. The University of North Texas has an esports varsity program. Oklahoma City University holds an esports combine for high school students to compete for scholarships. Fellow Big Ten school, Ohio State, constructed its own state-of-the-art esports arena accompanied by a curriculum, including the emergence of esports. 

The Nebraska Esports Club, a recognized student organization since October 2019, was born out of specific game clubs like the League of Legends or Rocket League Clubs. 

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” said club member and social media manager, Josh Henry. “The college scene is so fun. You get to play against all of these rival schools like any other kind of sport.”

Like traditional sports, esports clubs conduct practices and hold their athletes to certain standards, often including GPA requirements and wellness limitations. 

When COVID-19 hit campuses across the nation in 2020, many traditional sports were drastically affected by this sudden change of pace. Face-to-face practices were put on a long hold and athletes had to quickly adjust to being online. 

Joey Spott, president of the Nebraska Esports Club, said esports athletes were already more adapted in the switch to online, but that’s not to say they didn’t experience any setbacks.

“From a competition side of it, we were set up easier for it than traditional sports,” said Spott. “I think the problem was that it had hit us before our club was even established for an entire year, so the growth took a hit.” 

Petrotta said he is on board with the potentiality of how big esports can become.

“It’s not even close to the peak of where it could go,” he said. “I think we’re climbing up the base of the hill at the moment.” 

The League of Legends World Championship finals held in South Korea in 2018 had over 100 million unique viewers who tuned in online, compared to the previous Super Bowl which had just over 98 million viewers, according to CNBC.  

Along with the addition of Petrotta, other UNL faculty understand the importance of esports in the college. 

Adam Wagler, Ph.D., a current advertising and public relations professor, researches immersive and interactive media, which embodies much of what esports brings to the table. 

“The momentum’s there,” Wagler said. “It’s still a relatively new discussion on whether schools are including it in the athletic department. The production around it presents tons of opportunities that are new and interesting because students have the potential to shape this industry.” 

The College of Journalism and Mass Communications took strides in including esports in its framework before officially adding a course to the curriculum. Wagler and the journalism college conducted e-gaming tournaments where journalism students live-streamed and broadcasted the gameplay. They’ve also created shorter, experimental pop-up classes specifically aimed toward the production behind gaming.

From an ADPR approach, Wagler realizes, like Petrotta, that this niche market brings forward  advertising opportunities. Similar to how NASCAR drivers show off sponsors on their vehicles,  brands partner with professional esports streamers. 

“We tend to try and look where audiences are looking,” Wagler said. “It’s much different than the passive broadcasting that comes with just watching TV. It’s a unique area that a lot of people growing up will now have this new expectation of being able to interact with the athletes in real time.” 

In fact, esports jobs grew 185% within the first six months of 2019, according to Esports Insider. 

Petrotta is not surprised. 

“The video game industry is larger than the movie industry — and that was before COVID-19 happened,” he said. “The gap has only gotten bigger.”

Brennan Merkle is a senior Sports Media and Communication major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has a passion for the details and data analysis that coincides within the field of sports and the nonstop revolving discussion around it.