LEBANON - A new collegiate sport is on the rise at Cumberland University.
It’s not one where athletes lay their bodies on the line or have to possess a specific set of physical traits to get into game.
The Phoenix added esports back in November of 2020 and the program is led by 25-year-old coach Spencer Claypool.
After graduating from Kentucky Wesleyan College, he then completed his Master’s in Exercise and Sport Science last May at CU while helping out in the Sports Information Department.
Claypool was tasked with building this program from ground zero. As a former football player, he’s approached recruiting with the same mindset.
“I will reach out to you, ask for film, I’ll go to your high school, I will talk to you, I will do everything just how any other sport does it,” Claypool said.
“I’ve been on both sides of it. I’m going to treat both sides as the same.”
Claypool wants to treat the esports program just as seriously as any other sport on campus. Twitch has been a way Claypool will find video on recruits and ask athletes to send their clips. He serves as the director too and has days from 10 a.m. to midnight, making sure he sees each of his teams.
CU is a member of the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference and is home to four different esport teams. There’s Rocket League, Overwatch, Call of Duty and Madden – all of which are coached by Claypool.
“For six months I recruited, the university built us a fully functional arena in the new Alumni Hall,” Claypool said.
“I got everything going and now we’ve become super successful as a team.”
As of March 28, the Madden team stood 21-8 while the overall esports program has a collective record of 58-37.
A win in Madden for the Phoenix is a best of three series.
“Right now I think we’re 16-6 against Division I schools,” Claypool said. “Purdue, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Florida, we’re not scared of competition. We’re always up for the challenge.”
One of Claypool’s top players used to crash on his couch back at NCAA Division II Kentucky Wesleyan.
As a senior, Claypool provided then-freshman Jaylen Taylor a place to stay while he played for the Panthers' football team.
While Taylor commuted from Grandview, IN to Owensboro, he enjoyed having upperclassmen mentor him while at the same time also saving money on gas.
Eventually, the sophomore wide receiver hungered for more playing time and found his way to Cumberland.
He made an immediate impact on the Phoenix, leading the team with 39 receptions (10.5 yards per) over 10 games and scored four touchdowns during the 2021 campaign.
For Taylor, Cumberland has a place to complete his marketing degree and play football all while he moonlights with the esports team.
It was a coincidence that Claypool was named the esports coach and his friend Taylor offered his Madden skills as needed down the road.
“I didn’t even know he was actually here,” Taylor said. “I told him (Claypool) if he ever got a Madden team to let me know. I had to try out and really the rest is history.”
Claypool added that Taylor is one of the best athletes he’s ever seen. During the football off-season was when Taylor reached out.
“[Jaylen] told me ‘I would love to sit down and try to help you guys win a championship,’ and so far he’s already won two players of the week, he’s balling out,” Claypool said.
Going into the ECAC playoffs Taylor is the 14th seeded player out of 24.
The postseason begins April 7 and Taylor will look to deliver what he told Claypool when he reached out about playing.
Taylor has enjoyed his time playing as a Madden athlete for Claypool. Lately, when Taylor plays he’s been using the Kansas City Chiefs when taking on opponents.
“He builds a relationship with every player,” Taylor said of Claypool. “Not necessarily as a coach but like a big brother figure. You can go to him about anything. He’s always going to find a solution nine times out of ten.”
Esports is a multi billion-dollar industry and Claypool says it has claimed its place in bright future of college sports.
“Three to five years from now this will be one of the most highest selling activities to go to school for,” Claypool said.
“You have to think about it, you’re now hitting a different niche of people.”
Claypool added how Name Image and Likeness (NIL) can be a major factor for collegiate esports.
“West Virginia started their esports program last year and they have a Madden player that won four tournaments in a row,” Claypool said.
“What’s good about NIL for esports is there is a money payout. That guy from West Virginia (Noah Johnson) able to take home like $150,000 over a four-month span.”
What’s been paying off for the Phoenix esports program is hard work and determination.
Claypool has a slogan for his program after seeing the results from this season paying off from all of the work put in to create these rosters.
“Watch greatness happen,” Claypool said. “I’m super proud of all of them and can’t wait to see where we are two to three years from now.”