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Game changer: CCSU joins the gaming world in a big way

Students are shown here in the CCSU ESports Center on a recent weeknight evening. (Photo by Stan Godlewski)

By Amy J. Barry

First impressions can be deceiving. When you look around the CCSU ESports Center, you will see students sitting at consoles in comfortable gaming chairs, controllers in hand, enthusiastically playing the latest video games. You may think this is an attractive, well-equipped space for students to congregate and have fun in their downtime between and after classes.

And you’d be correct.

But this is much more than a recreation room. It represents an exploding billion-dollar industry where research, academics, and gaming converge.

Earlier this year, President Zulma R. Toro recognized the multitude of opportunities — academic and otherwise — the construction of such a center could provide.

“I envision this center as a hub for research and development in emerging fields such as interactive media design and game development,” Toro says. “It will also augment some of the University’s longer standing programs in business management, accounting, technology, cyber security, and computer science.”

When she directed members of her executive committee to establish an ESports Center at CCSU, Dr. Toro placed the university at the forefront of a national movement in academia. By setting a tight deadline of three months, she ensured CCSU became the first dedicated academic and recreational esports room to open on a Connecticut college campus.

The center officially opened at noon on Sept. 6 in a former fitness center in Memorial Hall. By 11:30 a.m., a line of students was waiting for the doors to open.

Build it and they will play

There are many reasons the ESports Center and its affiliated programs are a boon for the university.

There is, of course, built-in appeal for prospective students who grew up gaming. But CCSU’s Esports Center aims to reach out to and beyond the university’s circles of hard-core gamers.

“This is a true example of how we can be interdisciplinary at the university level because there is so much opportunity to use the room for recreational purposes and now intercollegiate sports and the academic piece,” says Dr. Kimberly Kostelis, dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies.

“Students are going to be more personally invested in their coursework, and we’ll be keeping up with a generation of students we’re serving,” she adds.

According to George Claffey, CCSU’s chief information officer, once the decision was made to create the ESports Center, construction moved at breakneck speed. On June 4, all the exercise equipment in the former fitness room had been removed. Within 65 days the center was complete. With

sponsorships and discounts, the final cost was about $300,000.

“Rarely do you see something like this being built in 65 days,” Claffey says. “I think this is demonstrating that we can build provocative, agile, innovative spaces that are real showcases here, and it’s not going to break the bank.”

Claffey led the team that chose the equipment for the ESports Center, often consulting with members of the university’s eSports Club to get input from students with expertise in video technology. They also reached out to established university partners.

“No one gave us equipment for free, but we talked to companies like Dell that had a 10-year relationship with the university,” Claffey says. “They came up with an exceptional discount using Alienware hardware, which is part of their gaming division.”

CCSU also received a grant from Unity 3D, a cross-platform game design engine — one of the top three tools internationally in video game construction. In total, Unity 3D awarded $100,000 worth of licenses to develop, create, or design video game characters and worlds.

Microsoft also was actively involved, providing guidance, discounts on consoles, and local personnel to help meet the rapid construction timeline.

“Microsoft has had a presence at Central since the ‘90s, and one of the members of the Microsoft team was a CCSU alum,” Claffey says. “It’s great when current and past generations of the university community come together to help build something for the next generation of students.”

Let the games begin

A significant aspect of the Esports Center is competitive gaming, which Claffey notes is growing at an unparalleled rate, only surpassed by the Super Bowl in viewership. CCSU’s center features a “shoutcasting” booth equipped with cameras and microphones that enable students to record, discuss, and stream game play in real time — a potential draw for students interested in broadcasting careers.

The Esports Center now serves as a dedicated practice and game space for the eSports & Gaming Club — one of the university’s biggest clubs with more than 300 students currently registered. Going forward, CCSU esports teams will participate in Eastern College Athletic Conference events. The university is in the process of hiring a dedicated coach for ECAC competition. Administration of the intercollegiate team will fall under SEPS.

Students test out the equipment at the CCSU ESports Center during its Sept. 6 opening reception. (Photo by John Atashian)

Nicholas Pudlinski, a senior majoring in Psychology at Central, is president of the eSports & Gaming Club and a longtime video game hobbyist. He thinks gamification in academia is a smart move.

“Gaming is a monster industry, both on the development and competitive side, and the field continues to grow and diversify with new technology,” he says. “It is important that schools have programs that prepare students for such lucrative fields.”

Getting parents onboard

For parents who may question the value of a gaming facility at the university, Claffey points to his own child as an example.

He describes his 14-year-old son as an A-student and enthusiastic gamer, noting that he limits his gaming time at home. Although Claffey isn’t concerned his son will keep up his grades when he goes to college, he is concerned about the allure of unregulated, unsupervised gaming in his dorm room.

“I would much rather him come out in the daylight and meet other people, who are passionate about what he’s passionate about — these games,” Claffey says. “A lot of those students are going to major in cybersecurity, management information systems, and computer sciences, and the ESports Center is the kind of place where they’re going to be meeting each other.”

Pudlinski agrees and draws a distinction between students sitting alone and texting or messaging on their phones versus participating in the eSports Club and ESports Center.

“Since gaming is more interactive than social media, I think it produces more meaningful direct interactions among people,” he says. “When it comes to actual esports, the interaction is bumped up to the extreme. Just like any other sports team, you have to communicate with your teammates to play effectively, and this can create meaningful connections and lasting bonds.”

Claffey argues that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone at any age that isn’t playing something or isn’t hooked on something on his or her phone.

“All parts of our lives have been gamified,” he insists. “Whether you use Waze or GPS or a Fitbit. In today’s world, gaming and business are completely interrelated.”

That said, to ensure academic responsibilities don’t take a backseat to gaming, there is a student code of conduct for the ESports Center, and time constraints are strictly enforced.

An attendant is always present when the center is open. When students enter, they swipe their Blue Chip cards and begin a two-hour timeframe to play. ESports Center staff can see online how long the student has played that day and use discretion, for example, to give them another few hours later in the night.

What the future holds

The ways in which the university will integrate these new video technologies into curriculum and programs is a work in progress, according to Claffey and Kostelis.

“We do know that we’re going to have more classes that are in game design, digital storytelling, and character development,” Kostelis says.

She, too, says gamification is here to stay and the university needs to be responsive to it.

“More and more K-12 teachers are gamifying their curriculum, so this is how students are learning content. Then they’re coming here and teachers are using the traditional pedagogy,” she says. “So having the center here has gotten us to think outside of some of our traditional teaching methodologies.”

Kostelis says she has received many proposals from faculty that embrace the concept of esports — from the modification of an existing course to the development of a full curricular program.

“We’re exploring having a minor or certificate for someone who, for example, is majoring in English and would like to work in the gaming industry,” Kostelis says. “We’ll be reviewing proposals from the Construction Management Department and how this can help them be more prepared. I think we’re going to see this being utilized in lots of different programs.”

Thus far, the esports grant review committee has funded six proposals in its first round of awards. Faculty leaders are also laying the groundwork for at least one academic program related to esports with the possibility of more options available in time for the Spring 2020 semester.

University staff have proven equally invested in building up the program.

“People from Student Affairs and Academic Affairs and IT are all at the table together, which has not happened in other areas,” Kostelis says. “So I think this is a bigger deal that relates to the vision of Dr. Toro as far as making sure we’re being collaborative and interdisciplinary in order to be stronger together.”

What is gamification?

Gamification might sound like a buzzword for upstart companies and tech wizards, but technically, most of us are navigating our steadily gamified world without even picking up a controller.

Have you earned a free coffee from Starbucks Rewards? Do you rack up points on, say, by writing reviews and making purchases? Have you unlocked new badges or levels for checking into a certain number of places on Yelp, TripAdvisor, or Facebook? Perhaps you’ve registered to join an online campaign by texting a code to a certain number.

If the answer is yes, the game is afoot and you’re a seasoned player in it.

Gamification, by definition, is the use of game dynamics to influence behavior in non-game scenarios — from business and education to marketing and civic engagement and everywhere in between. Researchers say it works because game-play dynamics appeal to humanity’s innate interest in socialization, learning, competition, and self-expression, among other built-in motivators.

The name of the game is engagement in an effort to change how we approach and interact with products and services; how we meet goals and set new ones; even how we solve problems and learn new concepts.

Gamification researcher and author David Folmar notes, “Gamification is not just making a game, which imparts a lesson; it is applying game thinking to how we impart that lesson and continuing to develop it based on the feedback from the players.”

By adding game-play concepts to non-game environments, companies, schools, corporations, and other organizations hope to change attitudes, increase motivation, and, yes, inject some fun into the everyday tasks or lessons at hand.

In a classroom, fun can be an effective motivator and increase engagement among students. A 2013 study on gamification in education notes, “The goal is to maximize enjoyment and engagement through capturing the interest of learners and inspiring them to continue learning.”

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