The ‘right person at the right time,’ Gawrysiak fills director role for new esports program
Get the latest Syracuse news delivered right to your inbox. Subscribe to our newsletter here.
Like most kids in the 1990s, Joey Gawrysiak played video games — The Legend of Zelda, GoldenEye 007 and Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, what he labeled as the “heyday of gaming” — despite his parents’ initial doubts in their educational value.
“My parents were the typical parents that said, ‘you know, you’re never gonna make a career out of that’… we look at that now and they’re like, ‘I’d wish we’d put you to play more video games,’” Gawrysiak said.
Three decades later, Gawrysiak started his new role on Aug. 21 as executive director of Syracuse University’s new esports communications and management joint degree program, which will begin enrolling students in fall 2024. SU hired Gawrysiak to execute the university’s esports initiatives and oversee the growth of recreational and competitive esports on campus.
Gawrysiak previously worked as director of esports for Shenandoah University since 2018. There, he coordinated with faculty to develop the curriculum for the school’s esports major and sanctioned a varsity-level, competitive esports team. The team received official jerseys, venues for practice and funding for travel to other locations for competition.
“What I’ve done is combined my two favorite things in the world … which are sports and video games, and that’s exactly what esports is,” Gawrysiak said.
Michael Veley, founding director and department chair of sport management in SU’s David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, was one of two co-chairs on the search committee that hired Gawrysiak.
“He’s got extensive managerial experience not only of chairing an esports program, but building experiential learning, which was a key component of the criteria that we were hoping to attract in a candidate in the hiring process,” Veley said.
Esports continues to be one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, Gawrysiak said, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Esports as an industry experienced rapid growth as traditional American sports organizations like the NBA and NCAA briefly shut down due to the pandemic, and is expected to reach a value of roughly $5.7 billion by 2030.
SU is now joining several other universities in the United States with an esports major, including The Ohio State University, the University of California, Irvine and the University of Texas at Arlington. as the growth of recognized competitive esports programs also continues to rise.
“People will realize that esports is not a fad,” Veley said. “It’s a viable economic engine in the overall sports economy.”
The National Association of Collegiate eSports formed in July 2016 as a non-profit organization to advance collegiate esports at the varsity level. Only seven U.S. colleges and universities offered varsity esports programs when NACE was founded; by December 2022, 175 U.S. colleges and universities offered competitive esports, approximately a 177% increase since 2018.
Gawrysiak’s former colleagues from Shenandoah said they’re looking forward to seeing how Gawrysiak executes his new role at SU.
Zander Merle-Smith, an instructor of esports at Shenandoah, said Gawrysiak’s greatest strength is surrounding himself with strong leaders who can build relationships with students, something he experienced himself after enrolling in Shenandoah’s esports management MBA.
Merle-Smith admitted Gawrysiak faced a tough decision in leaving Shenandoah for central New York. Gawrysiak joined Shenandoah in 2012 as an associate professor of sport management before becoming the esports program director six years later. Merle-Smith said Gawrysiak debated the benefits of the two schools before deciding to transfer to SU because of the chance to create an esports program at a D1 school.
In addition to the major, the university plans to promote competitive, varsity-level esports under Gawrysiak’s leadership, according to Jeff Rubin, who serves as Chancellor Kent Syverud’s special advisor on esports and digital transformation. The university is working on a new esports facility in the Schine Student Center that will include at least 35 gaming consoles and a 10-person stage for competitions. It is set to be fully operational by the 2024-2025 academic year.
“Joey is coming in to help make Syracuse a competitor at the highest level in esports,” Rubin said. “This is the right person at the right time for us to start this program.”
SU’s investment in competitive esports caters to students like Braeden Cheverie-Leonard, a sophomore sport management major and captain of the university’s Call of Duty team. Cheverie-Leonard plans to enroll in the esports major next fall, and said he hopes the university’s commitment to esports can enhance the student experience for students like him.
“We want to bridge the gap between our traditional athletes and our esports athletes, and Joey is really at the head of that,” Cheverie-Leonard said. “Overall, the goal is to prepare students in the major for whatever aspect of esports they want to go into.”
Veley selected Cheverie-Leonard to be one of several student representatives who watched presentations by the final candidates for the esports director position. Cheverie-Leonard said he was impressed with Gawrysiak’s desire to incorporate as many aspects of the industry as possible into the student experience.
Lawson Berman, a sophomore studying in the Martin J. Whitman School of Management and captain of SU’s Overwatch team, said his goal with other students and Gawrysiak is to lay a foundation of esports programs for future students.
“His position is a great opportunity to show people what this is about,” Berman said. “There’s a really big opportunity over the next few years to just blow some people away, and honestly, he may be very responsible for the success because there’s only so much I can do in my time at Syracuse.”
Gawrysiak acknowledges there will be obstacles moving forward, especially as he makes the adjustment to moving to a more populated institution like SU. He managed esports initiatives for an undergraduate population of approximately 2,400 students at Shenandoah, compared to the roughly 15,000 undergraduate student body of SU.
Gawrysiak will also be tasked with a fast turnaround time to fully flesh out the esports curriculum in time for the fall 2024 semester.
“He gets to choose what he wants that program to look like,” Alyssa Duran, coordinator of esports competition at Shenandoah, said. “As somebody new to campus, to the students (and) to the staff, he really has to get to learn everybody there and figure out what is wanted, and I think that can be kind of intimidating.”
Gawrysiak said his main focus for this fall is assembling his team of professors and faculty members to begin work outlining and finalizing the curriculum for the major. He will also work with university officials to figure out what recreational and competitive esports looks like down the road.
Future plans include SU joining NACE, continuing competitive esports in the East Coast Athletic Conference and collaborating with other schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference to compete against each other, Gawrysiak said. SU’s long-term vision for esports also includes eventually hosting tournaments on campus and traveling to other venues to compete.
While he reflected fondly on his time at Shenandoah, Gawrysiak said he’s ready to take on the challenges and opportunities at SU.
“I really got the ability to start a brand new program there for esports that was very different from anywhere else,” Gawrysiak said. “That kind of led me to where I am, here at Syracuse to do the same thing.”
Published on August 31, 2023 at 12:22 am
Contact Dominic: [email protected] | @DominicChiappo2