Building an Esports Conference from the Ground Up – The Esports Observer

Regional focus and diverse programming support member schools.

As Washington, D.C. developed into a national esports hub in recent years, regional stakeholders recognized an opportunity to support collegiate-level esports and help maximize their potential throughout the area.

Several colleges and universities in and around DC currently host esports programs, though the lack of any unifying body to organize competitions made coordination difficult. Local esports organizers recognized that an official organizing body could help these institutions scale up competition, show off their curriculum and provide career opportunities for students and graduates.

Thus, was born the Mid-Atlantic Esports Conference (MAEC) Events DC, following a series of Zoom meetings involving Events DC (the official convention and sports authority for the District of Columbia), Game Gym (a local organization striving to connect the community through esports) and more than two dozen DC-area colleges.

“We reached out to 25 or 30 schools and asked them what they like, what they don’t like and what they need help with,” said Josh Hafkin, CEO of Game Gym. “Through that came this idea where we could create the Mid-Atlantic Esports Conference that supports the competition, but also highlights the amazing schools and programs and helps the programs get their students great jobs and internships. Those were three goals we identified, and everything rolled out from there.”

In March of 2021, 12 schools began competition in titles including League of Legends, Overwatch and Rocket League. Fan engagement on Twitch, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram began strong and has grown increasingly since its inception.

In addition, the Conference developed and fostered an active player and coach community on the Discord platform, and word of mouth led to increased interest from other area schools. Consequently, two additional universities joined the MAEC, bringing the total to 14 schools to date.

Neil Johnson, director of esports at Events DC, says engaging the collegiate community is a major part of his organization’s mission to position Washington, DC as a leading esports destination. The reception from local schools was immediately positive.

“To be in an area where collegiate esports is growing so quickly, it’s a missed opportunity if you’re not acting and activating in that scene,” Johnson said. “We were not met with skepticism. Rather, we were quite amazed at the response from the collegiate community.”

Regional Competition

While many collegiate esports leagues are national in scope, the MAEC’s regional focus is a key differentiator.

The camaraderie, community and rivalries the league is fostering were a large part of the attraction for Shenandoah University, a private institution in Winchester, Va., that has a robust esports program spanning from competition to academics.

Shenandoah is also a member of the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) and competes nationally across seven esports titles. Competing against schools within its own region is a game changer, said Dr. Joey Gawrysiak, director of esports at the Shenandoah University.

As a member of the NACE Board of Directors and formally on the NACE Competition Council, Gawrysiak has been heavily involved in organizing plenty of national competitions.

“What these guys are setting up at the regional level really resonated,” Gawrysiak said of the MEAC. “What we need more of in esports is to provide these regional competitions with geographic rivalries, because to a large extent, esports does not operate in the same kind of geographic dynamic that traditional sports does with their conferences. Being able to compete with people that are regionally similar to us was a big advantage.”

“This is why we love the Big 10, the ACC, the SEC,” Johnson said of the regional appeal of traditional college sports. “In other esports settings, they may try to stoke some traditional rivalry with a university that’s in, say, Arizona. How is that a natural rival for you? In our conference, the school you are competing against is 25 miles down the road, so you do get that ‘North Carolina vs. Duke’ style of healthy friction.”

Game Gym’s Hafkin said that his organization, Events DC and the MAEC member schools are “in this together, and we’re supporting each other, creating local rivalries, going after the same recruits, doing all the things that make sports really wonderful. We’re doing it, not with a trickle-down mentality, but with a building-brick-by-brick-from-the-bottom-up mentality. That’s why people are investing in and want to be a part of what we’re building.”

Beyond gaming 

The benefits of a centralized collegiate esports organization can go well beyond competition. Developing talent, providing a path from high school to college, preparing students for careers in the industry and job placement were among the priorities of the inaugural members of the MAEC. Game Gym, which governs the conference, heard those calls.

“We’ve listened to what they want – everything from the games that they want to play, the schedules of the competitions, the structure of those competitions, and the additional services,” said Evan Shubin, Game Gym’s COO.

As an example of these services, Fairfax County, Va., held a virtual career fair in May that included a webinar exclusively for students at the member schools, offering tips and tricks on virtual interviewing and how to improve their LinkedIn profiles.  The event was held in conjunction with the “Spring Summit” event, where competition in all three titles culminated in a championship final. Planning is underway for a combine and college fair for high school students eager to showcase their talents at the collegiate level. At Shenandoah, 56 students competed at the varsity level this spring, with 34 students studying esports and 11 more working in broadcast production.

“There are opportunities for getting professional development exposure to enhance resumes and make some money with work-study positions,” Gawrysiak said. “What’s really great and unique about this conference that we don’t see at the national level is the ‘beyond gaming’ side. A lot of organizations are struggling with offering more than just competition – how they offer opportunities on the scholastic and job opportunity side of things, how they offer internships.”

Johnson emphasized that the nation’s capital is planning to lead the nation in the esports evolution. “We are aiming to be leaders in collegiate esports with the programming in the MAEC,” he said. “Other conferences around the country might be corralling schools and want to have a national collection of colleges and universities, but are they drilling down deeper to provide benefits beyond competition? We want to stand apart in DC and set an example for others to follow.”


  • Catholic University
  • George Mason University
  • Northern Virginia Community College
  • Hood College
  • Old Dominion University
  • Howard Community College
  • Randolph College
  • Marymount University
  • Randolph-Macon College
  • Mount Saint Mary’s University
  • Shenandoah University
  • Virginia Commonwealth University
  • George Washington University  (Came in after the conference started)
  • University of North America  (Came in after the conference started)

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