ST. CLOUD - Under the soft glow of color-changing LED lights, six St. Cloud State University students sat in a row, clad in matching jerseys, staring intently at computer screens.

As they maneuvered virtual cars in a fast-paced game of video soccer, the action was broadcast to larger screens across the room. When one of the players scored a goal, a gaggle of spectators sitting in folding chairs erupted with hollers and cheers.

From outside the room in the bowels of the student union, it sounded like the student section at a hockey game. But it was a group of fans watching St. Cloud State's newest varsity team compete at the launch of the campus' e-sports arena.

The school is one of the first across the state to dive headfirst into the integration of e-sports into its campus culture and academics.

"We know that e-sports is a multibillion-dollar industry," said Robbyn Wacker, the school's president, at a recent event to showcase how St. Cloud State is quickly becoming a leader in the field.

The popularity of video games such as "Rocket League," which students played at the launch, has transformed gaming from pastime to profession, with increasing employment opportunities for creators, commentators, players and event coordinators. Over the past two decades, competitive gaming has become mainstream as schools create e-sports clubs and students earn scholarships for their gaming skills.

"There's this negative stigma where e-sports and gaming in general is just kids in their basement, sweaty and unshowered," said Noah Kylander, 24, the new e-sports coach at St. Cloud State. "But there's a lot of opportunity. It's turning into a lot bigger thing than many people could have ever imagined."

University leaders are banking on the approachability and inclusiveness of e-sports to help attract students to the central Minnesota school.

A lot of schools "have focused on the social aspect, and that's kind of their thing," said Chris Stanley, director of educational technology innovations at St. Cloud State. "And there are a lot of schools — in our region and nationally — who went the competitive route. They are going for top talent."

St. Cloud State, he said, is focusing on a broader approach — competition, community and careers.

The varsity team is one of 125 from 108 colleges across the country to compete in the National Esports Collegiate Conference. It plays against eight teams in the Heartland Conference, which includes several Iowa schools as well as Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis.

University leaders are also using e-sports to help build campus camaraderie by hosting free community gaming events and creating e-sports spaces in dorms. They are also creating career paths with two new minor programs in the subject.

Last fall, St. Cloud State laid the groundwork for an e-sports management minor housed in its business school. The three classes available are e-sports event planning, competition structure and governance, and experimental learning, where students work with a Minnesota e-sports organization to gain direct experience.

Next year, the university plans to offer an e-sports minor in the mass communications department, part of which will focus on casting — the term for live commentating at e-sports competitions.

The business management classes are taught by 36-year-old Kurtis Homan, a self-described arcade rat who grew up playing fighting games such as "Mortal Kombat" and later started the first e-sports club at Illinois State University. Most recently, he obtained his doctoral degree in supply-chain technology and wrote his dissertation on predictive indicators in video games.

Many of the students in Homan's classes don't consider themselves avid gamers, he said. But the classes supplement studies in business, economics, science and engineering.

St. Cloud State leaders also hope e-sports programs will help prospective students feel at home at the university, which recently started e-sports camps for high school students.

"Whether that's more on the recreational side or academic or competitive, [it's] creating that connection," said Phil Thorson, vice president of technology strategy.

Overseeing the new e-sports initiatives is Chase Neukam, e-sports director, who started in February. Neukam, 27, started the e-sports club at Indiana's Ball State University, helped manage an e-sports facility in Iowa and served as head coach of the e-sports team at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.

All three of the new e-sports leaders at St. Cloud State take issue when people lament that e-sports doesn't compare to "real sports."

"To be good at anything, you have to put the time in," Kylander said. "Just because it's a video game doesn't mean these players aren't putting that amount of time in."

The varsity e-sports team practices twice a week and competes weekly — but most players put in hundreds of hours on their own. Freshman Evan Leeser, 19, said he usually puts in about 30 hours a week between classes and team practices.

Leeser, who plans to major in environmental engineering, joined the e-sports team last summer before classes started.

"It was nice to come to campus and have a friend," he said of the other students he met through the varsity team. "Now, all my best friends come from this team."

The varsity league's season wraps up in April, but informal gatherings will continue in the e-sports lounge, where all students are welcome — and encouraged — to play and watch.

"Obviously my concern is my teams and how well they're playing," Kylander said. "But another big concern of mine — and the No. 1 priority of everyone that is working in the e-sports field right now — is building a community that's welcoming."