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With a Donor’s Helpful Nudge, OCU Joins Global Esports Craze - Spring 2021

by Rod Jones

Rendering of seating and consoles for esports and man standing
Left: Rendering of the planned esports arena in the Boathouse District along the Oklahoma River. Rendering courtesy of Equinox Esports. Right: Chad Ford in OCU’s esports arena on campus. Photo by Eric Gomez

Former OCU business major Chad Ford is the kind of guy who gets enthusiastic about his work. It’s apparent in his voice when he talks about the various projects he takes on.

“I like to chase unicorns, get into stuff people don’t believe in on the front end,” Ford said after listing the many ventures he’s already launched and plans to tackle in the near future. “I can’t see myself starting an accounting firm and going after new clients day after day. I like doing stuff that keeps me interested.”

His current interest is in the hyper-expanding, constantly evolving, ever-thrilling industry of esports. Luckily for Oklahoma City University, that interest is mutual.

One joint project he helped fund is a new campus esports arena and performance center, built out from what was once the student lounge area on the bottom floor of the Sarkeys Science and Math Center. The 2,100-square-foot corner of the building now resembles an area ripped from the set of the movie “TRON.”

The arena will be used as a practice and competition space, a broadcasting space for competitive matches, a study/lounge area for team members, and a venue to host local high school esports competitions. The opening was delayed due to the pandemic but should be announced soon.

Ford has enjoyed playing video games since his childhood in the Deer Creek suburb of Oklahoma City.

“Some of my favorite things growing up were eating chips and queso and playing ‘Tony Hawk Pro Skater,’” he said, referring to the popular skateboarding video game. “Now you see this industry booming, and I wanted in on the ground floor.

“I also want to drive the point home that to be tech savvy, you don’t have to live in New York or San Francisco or Seattle. You can be involved right here in Oklahoma.”

Ford jumped into one of the fastest-growing trends in America. He started and runs an esports management club called Equinox Esports, the first professional esports organization to represent Oklahoma. Ford and his partners have leveraged their connections with people in higher education, development, marketing, and more in their pursuit to lead and advance the esports industry in the state.

Another esports arena project Ford has in progress also has an OCU connection — Mike Knopp, executive director of the RIVERSPORT Foundation and the primary motivator and visionary behind the Boathouse District. Knopp, who established and coached OCU’s rowing team in 2003, said he was excited to help develop plans for an esports arena on the banks of the Oklahoma River. The area will serve as a companion piece to a district that already includes multiple boathouses, a whitewater rafting course, a ropes course, a bicycle and skateboard pump track, a surfing simulation machine, and more. Nearly every year since the Chesapeake Boathouse dedication 15 years ago, the district offers a new adventure to discover.

Knopp said every addition is part of a broader purpose.

“This is all about balance,” Knopp said. “We’re envisioning an opportunity where a rower or kayaker can come off the water and switch to a different form of competition. The parallels are synergistic. With esports, you can apply many of the same principals of high-performance training. Many of the mental components apply to all of these different forms of competition.

“We also see opportunities where kids can take an esports camp, then get exposed to the other activities we offer.”

Ford agreed, saying many of the skills utilized in esports are similar to “real” sports and esports provide a valuable form of cross-training.

Students gaming
Esports in action with OCU students. Photos by Ethan Cooper

Looking Ahead

Ford still spends part of his time managing a sports bar and restaurant he opened with some of his closest friends. Chalk in the Chisholm Creek district of Oklahoma City was yet another endeavor of passion for which he and his friends brainstormed and dreamed as their ultimate place to watch sports.

Since then, Ford has started gravitating more to his Equinox startup, seeing a new and exciting venture poised for continued growth.

“We look to colleges on how much interest it’s gaining,” he said. “This generation grew up with technology. Now esports and video games are bigger than they’ve ever been.”

OCU started an academic esports program a year ago. The team was admitted into the National Association of Collegiate Esports last summer.

One of the team’s first players is freshman esports management major Caleb Mudd, captain of the OCU eSports “Rocket League” team. Mudd said he took a close look at OCU after hearing about the program from his father, who was selected to design the team’s first uniforms. Upon seeing the university’s dedication to establishing a full-blown scholarship program, he decided to bring his talents to OCU.

“I was impressed by how much support I’d receive as a player and in my academics,” he said. “Right away, I could tell it wasn’t about buzzwords on a sheet of paper.”

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