Meet the Two-Time World Champion Leading NC State Esports

Written by Sam Gunnells, Courtesy of

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.

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.

What made you decide to turn esports into a career?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

The NECC fosters innovative competition experiences, provides quality broadcasting services, and works to support an inclusive community within collegiate esports. The NECC was started to provide the collegiate gaming community with the respect it warranted and deserved. The conference prides itself on responding to the needs of its schools, directors, coaches, and most importantly - its players.

With more than 400 colleges and universities currently competing, the NECC strives to be a positive home for the collegiate gaming community.

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