In April 2020, leaders at the State University of New York decided they wanted to do something in the early days of COVID-19 to help socially isolated students feel involved, stay connected and feel pride in the college when they couldn’t set foot on campus.
SUNY was already a leader in collegiate esports, with a top-of-the-line, 1,800-square-foot arena on its Canton campus that boasts 24 Dell Alienware Area-51 PCs, each with AMD Ryzen Threadripper processors, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti video cards and 32 gigabytes of RAM. So, it didn’t take long to come up with a unique and pandemic-friendly idea: SUNY would organize an esports tournament for any students at its 64 campuses who wanted to compete.
The response was overwhelming, with teams from 40 campuses participating. Many of the teams were new, formed specifically to take part in the tournament. That reception — together with the demand of 50 to 60 students clamoring to join a handful of player teams — led SUNY to dream up something even more ambitious before the competition had even come to a close: creating a year-round esports league across all its campuses for fall 2020.
The only challenge was facilitating the technological infrastructure needed to make it happen.
The Model for an Ideal Esports Network in Higher Ed
To create networking for the league, SUNY built on its approach to networking for the Canton esports facility. It partnered with Extreme Networks to give the arena a few must-haves: high-bandwidth, low-latency Wi-Fi and proper switching for peak connectivity.
Previously, Canton had been using a switch shared with classrooms and single network interface cards. After Extreme Networks came on board, the university upgraded to a dedicated hardware closet and doubled switches for full redundancy. It also homerunned switches to the edge of the network (switches originally went through a core router and commodity internet), then added a secondary connection through the academic network.
Because bandwidth stability is so important for esports, Extreme Networks’ analytics dashboard was installed and used to monitor SUNY Canton’s network.
“Using network analytics, IT staff can keep track of bandwidth distribution across campus and ensure arenas are prioritized and receive proper bandwidth during games for a seamless experience,” says Norman Rice, COO of Extreme Networks. “IT staff also use analytics to manage and monitor all connected devices.”
These were the features that needed to be scaled and rolled out to all of the SUNY campuses that wanted to participate in the campuswide league.
Getting Campuses Ready for the New SUNY Esports League
A few core objectives had to be met for campuses wanting to participate in the league. “Extreme Networks stepped up and provided guidance on what they could do to improve those facilities in that short time period,” says Kyle Brown, SUNY’s assistant vice president for IT for SUNY Canton.
Priorities included improving network latency, jitter and delays, says Rice.
In addition, “facilities need continuous and uninterrupted uptime, network management and security, visibility and analytics, and broadband connection to the internet,” he says. Across the SUNY system, individual campuses would determine the extent to which they would meet those objectives.
“It will be up to each campus to decide if they want to create an esports arena or campus network refresh similar to the work we did with SUNY Canton,” says Rice.
Throughout the summer and fall, Extreme Networks provided guidance on networking setups, helping campuses optimize their networks and reduce latency. In terms of facilities and hardware, campuses rolled out what upgrades they could. Some had already invested in facilities, some built them; some repurposed computer labs or put what machines they could afford in unused rooms.
So far, the league has been a big success, with hundreds of students wanting to participate, systems running smoothly, a broad catalogue of games and plans to continue improving. But, as with other collegiate esports, technological achievement isn’t the only goal.
“Community and culture are critical — anything you can do to make students part of a family and part of your campus,” says Brown.