As a teenager, Joel Madru was immediately drawn into ESports. Little did he know his love of competitive video gaming would help him land a unique position at Saint Leo University several years later.

The 23-year-old native of Chicopee, MA completed his undergraduate studies at Siena College in New York where he earned a bachelor's in actuarial science.

Landing a Unique Opportunity at Saint Leo University

Madru explains how he learned about Saint Leo University and made the decision to move to sunny Florida.

"Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the job market wasn't looking too good out there when I graduated in May," Madru says. "So, I thought this would be a good time to get my master's. I started looking around at residence life jobs since I worked in this area as an undergrad. I came across a position with Saint Leo University."

After submitting his resume and before any formal interviews, he was contacted by Sean Ferguson, the assistant director of residence life at Saint Leo University. Ferguson spotted something that caught his eye.

"He noticed that my resume mentioned my involvement in ESports at my previous university," Madru explains. "Dr. Jeffrey Senese, the Saint Leo president, asked that an ESports team be created at Saint Leo. Dr. Jen Shaw, vice president of student affairs, was heading the project, but she needed an expert in the sport. So, they wondered if I'd have an interest in helping to get this going."

Because of the significant unemployment rate nationally in the months following the start of the pandemic, Madru knows he is fortunate to have found such a unique opportunity.

"I'm so grateful to Saint Leo for giving me this opportunity to both work in this role and earn my graduate degree at the same time. There are so many people out there who have lost jobs and can't find work at all because of the pandemic."

His Position with Residence Life

In the summer of 2020, he relocated to Florida and enrolled in the MBA in Data Analytics degree program. His job title is graduate assistant for residence life.

"I oversee Apartments 1 through 4," he explains. "I supervise the resident assistants (RAs) to make sure they are performing their jobs, coming up with programming for the student residents, serve on call for any student emergencies, and enforcing policy."

The pandemic has been a big factor in his role, he admits.

"It's definitely been different with everything going on. But we've tried to make the most of it all. My goal is to help our students get as much of a traditional college experience as possible. We've had to be creative."

In addition to working in the residence halls, developing an ESports team has also been a significant project for Madru.

Bitten by the ESports Bug

Madru first learned all about ESports early on.

"I started following the professional ESports industry when I was in high school," he recalls. "I immediately recognized the incredible growth of ESports and knew it was something I wanted to get into at some point."

He says he formally got into playing ESports when he was a sophomore in college, initially playing League of Legends.

"My university was looking for a manager and coordinator of one of our ESports teams, so I just had to apply."

For three years, he worked as a student coordinator managing the League of Legends team there and overseeing the teams that played Overwatch, Super Smash Bros., Fortnite, and Rocket League.

"Our Super Smash Bros. team won-back-to-back championships in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference," he proudly recalls.

While the NCAA does not formally recognize ESports teams at colleges and universities, the MAAC and other collegiate athletic conferences have hosted individual tournaments.

The Explosion of ESports in Popularity During the Pandemic

According to Madru, ESports in general has surged in popularity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

"It has grown so much in the past 10 months. Many people have seen it as an outlet to spend free time playing games against family, friends, and of course others from all over the world since so many people have been staying home."

He adds that many young people are bypassing playing sports like baseball, basketball, and football in favor of playing on an ESports team.

"The fact that these are fast-paced games makes them very popular. Plus, you can connect with people from anywhere. It's not like you can only play with friends in your own neighborhood."

Citing a jaw-dropping statistic to demonstrate the incredible following of ESports, the League of Legends ESports World Championship tournament last year drew nearly 46 million concurrent viewers watching online. He adds that people of any shape and background can compete.

"It's a very accessible platform," he says. "When you play ESports, it doesn't matter what you look like, where you come from, or if you have a disability. This type of gaming allows all types of individuals to come together and have fun. If students didn't play traditional sports growing up, this could be a great outlet for them in college and beyond. But we also have traditional student-athletes on our team. ESports is for everyone."

Because of its popularity, the university decided to get in the game.

"More and more high school students are indicating that ESports is something they are looking for when considering colleges and universities. Saint Leo University recognized this and decided that we should start an ESports team to meet this demand and drive enrollments and retention based on offering this exciting opportunity to our students," Madru explains.

The Saint Leo University ESports Team

Saint Leo has had an ESports student organization on campus for about two years. Madru wants students to know that this group still exists, but the new ESports team is different.

"The student organization is more casual," he explains. "With the ESports team, we have tryouts and only accept competitive students onto the team. The Team is also provided coaching, tournament opportunities, team jerseys, and other gear."

Madru serves as the coach and manager of the team. He says there are a few requirements to join the team.

"First off, you have to be a full-time Saint Leo student. You also have to be able to commute to University Campus. Plus, you must maintain certain GPA requirements. We are open to both undergraduate and graduate students."

There is also a formal tryout process for prospective competitors.

"We look at the in-game skills and overall metrics of a student in terms of playing the games, how well they would mesh with other students on a team, how accountable they are to show up on time, and their sportsmanship in terms of picking up their teammates when they are struggling. Overall, we want students who truly have fun playing these games."

Currently, there are about 20 Saint Leo students involved who compete in League of Legends, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and Rocket League. He says there has been a good amount of interest from students in STEM majors, such as computer science, cybersecurity, and math, as well as those majoring in business administration, economics, and criminal justice.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most practices and games have been held online. The university is designing an ESports arena for future practice sessions and tournaments that is expected to open in February. According to Dr. Shaw, who is also the ESports team sponsor, many hands have played a role in making this effort come to fruition.

"We have been working with partners across campus to create an ESports arena for our student-athletes and the general student population. Members of our Institutional technology, facilities, and marketing departments have all been essential in assisting student affairs with making this arena a reality. Open play times will be provided so that non-team members can use the finest equipment and improve their gaming skills."

The school-sponsored and supported ESports team will compete with universities across the country, travel to tournaments when the COVID-19 pandemic ends, host a high school clinic and tournament, and engage with students in many other ways.

A Fast Start to a Bright Future

In December, a team of 10 Saint Leo students competed in the Stockton University Winter Invitational. This eight-team League of Legends tournament also included teams from Rutgers University, Ithaca College, Manhattan College, and host Stockton University.

"We placed second in this tournament," Madru says. "The students really enjoyed it and did a great job for our first-ever appearance in a tournament. Our students showed up on time and were very focused. They won some computer hardware from Corsair which sponsored the event."

He explains his role as a coach.

"It's not like football where the coach calls plays into the quarterback's headset. With ESports, coaches only get to work with the team members before and after a game. During the actual gameplay, it's all up to the players."

He says he has studied many of the unique strategies that Asian ESports competitors use which are generally different from those in western cultures. He believes this helped his team perform so well in its maiden voyage.

Students from the Saint Leo ESports team are scheduled to compete in the College League of Legends Series sponsored by Riot Games. The six-week event kicked off the week of January 19 and runs through early March with the top teams advancing to the playoffs. Saint Leo University will be competing in the south division with schools like Florida State University, the University of Central Florida, and the University of North Carolina.

"This will be a great opportunity for our students and for Saint Leo University in general to get our name out there," he says.

WATCH: Below is a video of highlights from the Saint Leo ESports team when it competed in the 2020 Stockton University ESports Winter Invitational. These highlights are from the first day of this two-day tournament, held on Dec. 19, 2020. The video footage is courtesy of Stockton University.