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Meet the two-time world champion leading NC State Esports

Cody Elsen has built a career coaching professional and collegiate esports athletes to victory. As the Wolfpack's first esports program director, he aims to build NC State Esports into a hub for student success and institutional collaboration.

NC State Esports Program Director Cody Elsen plays a game alongside Mr. Wuf in the NC State Gaming and Esports Lab.

For decades, students drove the development of competitive video gaming at NC State. Over the years, while video games grew and evolved as an industry and an art form, students formed clubs or gathered in informal groups to compete around the most popular titles. This legacy lives on today in residence halls across our campus and through student-led gaming communities such as the Esports Club.

Now, thanks to $16 million in funding from the North Carolina General Assembly, NC State is elevating our student-built gaming ecosystem by launching NC State Esports, an official program dedicated to collegiate competition. To spearhead the program’s development from within the NC State University Libraries, university leaders selected an esports coach and manager who’s already helped build one of the premier collegiate esports programs in the nation.

Join us as we sit down with Cody Elsen, NC State’s first esports program director, to learn more about his history as a gamer and coach and his plans for NC State Esports.

Get To Know NC State Esports Program Director Cody Elsen

How did you become interested in gaming and esports?

When I was in sixth grade, my family moved to a new neighborhood, and one of my new neighbors, Aaron, attended the same summer camp I did. We started gaming together. For the next two or three years, we would sneak into each other’s houses at night, while our parents were asleep, to play Super Smash Bros. There was no real Wi-Fi option at the time, so that was the first truly competitive game that I got involved with.

I was a freshman in high school, in 2007, when I really started competing. I started playing Gears of War and traveling around the country as part of different professional teams, playing at LAN events and tournaments. It was a lot different than it is now. We used to put six people in the same hotel room. Now, players get flown around and stay in luxury hotels. But I continued to compete in different capacities from 2007 until about 2016.

A screen shows a matchup of the video game Super Smash Bros.
The gaming franchise that ignited Elsen’s passion for competitive gaming, Super Smash Bros., remains a popular choice among student gamers at NC State.

What made you decide to turn esports into a career?

…I saw that I could help provide an outlet for students who want to be professional gamers, but also help them grow other skills…

I had a great job in PR and marketing for one of the largest golf companies in the world, but I realized that golf wasn’t my passion. My passion was gaming and esports. I was determined to make it my full-time career, so I used my experience to start a brand called Fable Esports in 2016. We did really well over the next several years, coaching and developing professional players and fielding rosters for games like Gears of War, Halo and Rainbow Six. All of our rosters got acquired at some point.

Then I started looking at the collegiate landscape, because I realized that a lot of players were trying to go pro, but they had no fallback plan if that didn’t work out. That’s when I saw that I could help provide an outlet for students who want to be professional gamers, but also help them grow other skills that could translate to other careers. That was the model I started with in 2018 when I arrived at Northwood University. When I left the program to come to NC State, we had won two world championships, 14 national championships and over 30 conference championships.

NC State Esports Director Cody Elsen holds one of his two world championship trophies.
Elsen poses while holding one of two world championship trophies he and his esports athletes took home during his tenure at the helm of Northwood University Esports.

Overall, including my time at Fable Esports and Northwood University, my record has included 2,316 wins to 194 losses; those two world championships and 14 national championships with Northwood; plus more than 50 conference and league titles between Northwood and Fable.

What appealed to you about the opportunity to lead NC State Esports?

Over my five years at Northwood, I realized I wanted to be able to do what I was doing with all the elements there, but on a larger scale at a big university. I know that for collegiate esports to really take off, it’s going to take large schools like NC State coming in to stake their claim and make the vision into reality. I was blown away by the university’s commitment to the student experience, and by how much of the focus here is on collaboration — with students, with other university units and with the wider community. There’s a huge community of gaming that already exists at NC State, and I’m excited to be able to help it grow.

What goals have you laid out for the program?

Ultimately, we aim to make NC State the hub for esports on the East Coast.

Our goals for NC State Esports revolve around our values, what we’re calling our Four C’s: community, collaboration, careers and competition.

Community is all about continuing to grow the sense of unity on campus around esports. That involves creating more spaces for gaming, like the new NC State Gaming and Esports Lab at the Hunt Library, but also just creating opportunities for people to cross paths in these spaces. Down the road, we plan to host events and workshops for middle schools and high schools to help make sure NC State becomes the epicenter for esports in North Carolina.

A wide-angle view of students playing video games at computer stations in the NC State Gaming and Esports Lab, with orange lights illuminating the room.
The Gaming and Esports Lab in the Hunt Library provides NC State Esports and the larger Wolfpack gaming community with a nexus for competition and collaboration.

Collaboration, which I’m especially excited about, is where we’ll be working with different colleges and units across the university to conduct research, create courses and host programs that feed into esports. Whether it’s the College of Education, College of Engineering or the Poole College of Management, we’re going to work with these colleges to explore how gaming and esports can integrate into their programming and curriculum. Of course, collaboration is also about supporting partnerships with other companies and brands, whether that’s through sponsorships or donations.

Which leads us to careers. That’s where we’ll focus on building industry relationships and bringing in high-level guest speakers with experience in the field so students can ask questions and learn how people have actually translated their esports skills into careers. And it’s about leveraging the huge networks of industry connections that already exist at NC State to help us create opportunities like internships for students, and then continuing to grow those networks through esports. We’re also planning to host workshops for students and faculty that teach skills that can be applied to careers in the field — we’ve had a ton of interest in those already.

A presenter stands in front of an audience discussing a chart displayed on a large screen behind him, which depicts the workforce competencies associated with different genres of online video games.
Attendees at an open house event in the Hunt Library’s Teaching and Visualization Lab learn about the career competencies gamers develop through competitive online gaming.

And finally, competition. Esports is naturally competitive, and by fielding highly competitive teams, we’re going to give students opportunities to develop into professional gamers; but we’ll also have an impact with a larger group of students and alumni who might relate more to gaming than to traditional athletics. We’ll be creating new opportunities for student employment and engagement that aren’t directly tied to gaming. For example, if you have a competitive team, you’re going to need someone to monitor their schedule, and someone else to monitor their analytics.

This framework of the Four C’s shows how we’re going to learn and grow and improve as a program. What’s working now might not work five years from now, but following the Four C’s will prepare us to adapt. Ultimately, we aim to make NC State the hub for esports on the East Coast.

How have you tapped into NC State’s largely student-built esports culture to help launch the program?

I’ve gotten the chance to work with the officers of the Esports Club quite a bit since I’ve started, and our visions for what esports can be here are very much in line with each other. Those students have helped to generate ideas and goals for the program, and they’ve helped me to understand which games are really thriving on campus and which games and technology students expect to see in our gaming spaces.

We’re going to continue to support that community and help make them as visible as possible. Part of the reason I got involved with esports as a career is that, while I was competing in high school, I never really had a large community to be a part of around gaming. That relationship between the program and the club is only going to get stronger.

What excites you most about working with students, as compared to strictly professional gamers?

What I love most about it is that I’m able to help gamers with their early development, compared to a professional whose habits and muscle memory have already been established. In gaming, if you’re able to work with someone early on, you can teach them good habits from the start, you can teach them good positioning, you can teach them how to communicate but not to overcommunicate. If someone has already played a game for 10,000 hours, it can be hard to break them from bad habits.

The culture has been established here for so long, and we’re going to continue to push it forward.

I’m also just excited by their enthusiasm. As I get connected more and more with students, it’s great to see how excited they are by all the potential with NC State Esports. I’ve even been hearing from some alumni, who’ve been sending us pictures of them gaming from the 2000s — photos of their own clubs, their own tables set up trying to recruit people to play StarCraft and other games. The culture has been established here for so long, and we’re going to continue to push it forward.

How will the Gaming and Esports Arena slated to open in Mann Hall in 2026 enhance NC State’s standing within collegiate esports?

Honestly, I think about that arena every single day. When that facility opens, it’s going to open a new world of esports opportunities for NC State. Having this space that can host a lot more students to learn about esports around like-minded people, it will serve them as a gateway into their careers. And having this huge venue to run large workshops and bring in hundreds of audience members for events will give us a major incubator for esports in our region.

A shot of two students collaborating at a computer console with colorful images of video game characters showing on a screen in the background.
The Gaming and Esports Arena will open new opportunities for students, faculty and staff to elevate esports at NC State.

My goal is to have student-run startups help us develop the technology for the space. We plan to outfit it with a broadcast studio, so students will be able to plug in beyond gaming to learn about live production and event management. And, of course, the arena will only increase our ability to host and broadcast matches and field highly competitive teams.

This post was originally published in NC State News.