Farm to Fortnite

Farm to Fortnite

For Dana Hustedt, a 23-year-old farmer and the first woman to direct a university esports program in the U.S., it's all about the bounty.

DES MOINES, Iowa -- The entrance to the Grand View University esports arena is easy to miss. It's down a staircase, sort of hidden behind a shrub, that leads to a lower level of a residence hall.

The Grand View esports decal on the windows is the giveaway. The brassy red block letters stretching over the 2-foot width of the window are the only window treatments visible on the exterior of the building.

Inside, the room has the unmistakable feeling of a basement, and that's part of its charm. The space feels authentic. Grand View's colors jump out immediately with the black cinder-block walls and red carpet.

Twenty-eight new computers sit on tables (the individual standing desks should get in the next week, Dana Hustedt is quick to point out), giving all members of the Grand View squad their own machine and gaming chair. There is a sitting area with three red couches surrounding a projector screen where the team has video sessions to dissect its game film.

"It's not as fancy as some other schools," Hustedt says, "but it gets the job done."

Grand View is a small university of about 1,900 students in Des Moines, less than four miles from Drake University. It is a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) school -- there are 43 NAIA varsity esports programs nationwide -- and is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

Next to one of the couches there's a sign from Hustedt admonishing one of her players for not going to class. The note gives the times of his classes and implores everyone else to kick him out if he shows up to the arena during those times.

"If he comes in during class, someone just looks at him and says, 'Dude. Dana,'" she says with a smile.

Hustedt, 23, joined Grand View's esports program in May, a year and a half after the formation of the program. There are 124 varsity esports programs in the country, but Hustedt is the only woman in a director position. Though she plays Fortnite, her background is in business rather than gaming. She grew up on a farm in a small town, riding tractors and raising chickens; she didn't have many video games.

“Some days I worry that because I'm not a hard-core gamer ... that might affect the way I do my job.”

Dana Hustedt

But in an industry still finding its footing, Hustedt's expertise is proving to be the right fit for a young program looking to find its way.

Hustedt's office is tucked in the back of the arena. It's sparse -- just a desk, a few gaming chairs of her own and a monitor. From this perch, she keeps watch on the players in her program, making sure to be the right mixture of tough and caring, fair and fun.

The balance she's looking to strike reflects where she grew up, two hours away in Galva. She often makes the trip home on Friday afternoons, especially during harvest season. This year's wet fall has elongated the season's harvest, and in Iowa, late October means the possibility of bitter cold and a whiteout at any moment. Not getting corn off the stalks before snowfall would mean losing tens of thousands of dollars.

It is on this farm where Hustedt learned the value of a dollar, the importance of hard work and sacrifice. During harvest, Hustedt can be seen driving in the field, pulling a disc blade until well after sunset. "You do it," she says, "because you have to."

The Vikings prepare for an evening scrimmage, or scrim, against UMass Amherst. It's been a long day. Hustedt's clothes dryer broke in her apartment, so she had to use one in the residence hall that houses the arena. "It's embarrassing," she says, laughing and shaking her head.

Her students have been in and out of her office all afternoon, some stopping in just to say "hey," others asking questions. Hustedt has been on the phone trying to figure out the parameters around how she can hire another coach. A candidate visited today, but he hasn't finished up his degree, which makes the situation complicated.

Recruiting qualified candidates is a challenge for collegiate esports. Esports as an industry is new; collegiate esports is even greener, with the first varsity program forming in 2014. Those who hold the most experience in the field are often young enough to be college students themselves, and while they might know esports, they might not be able to support the development of students.

Grand View, for example, hasn't received an esports position application from anyone over 25.

These sorts of difficulties create circumstances for someone like Hustedt to step in and apply their outsider knowledge while learning on the job about the games. Grand View fields teams in League of Legends and Overwatch. Hustedt says the program is starting to dabble in Fortnite because one of her players is talented, but the competitive Fortnite scene is still developing.

Hustedt didn't really play video games growing up. She and her brothers got into Super Mario Land and Mortal Kombat on an original Gameboy before it was discontinued in the early 2000s. They also had a Super Nintendo, which they fought over. But competitive gaming didn't enter the picture until Hustedt found esports through her boyfriend, Cole McFarland.

McFarland also graduated from Grand View and coaches the League of Legends and Overwatch teams part time in addition to his full-time job. Hustedt, who was working at insurance company Gallagher, saw an opportunity and consumed as much as she could about esports. She directed the esports tournament hosted by Grand View in March, two months before being hired by the school as the program director.

"I didn't think I'd ever have a career [in esports]," Hustedt says. "I didn't know I could, but now, here we are."

Hustedt graduated from Grand View in 2016 with a business degree. She grew up playing sports with her three older brothers on the farm. They all played multiple sports, but baseball was particularly loved by her brothers, Hustedt gravitated toward softball. She played catcher her sophomore season at Grand View, but a tendon injury in her throwing arm forced a move to first base, and eventually a retirement from competitive play.

Dana Hustedt at her family's farm in Galva, Iowa.

"To get somebody like Dana to come on board who has the experience with athletes is more important to me than how well she knows how to play League of Legends," says Dr. Jay Prescott, Grand View's vice president of student affairs.

She provides structure for the players, too, which was hard to come by before. In the year before Hustedt's arrival, mid laner Jon "Kyuki" Quach bore a significant burden as the Grand View esports program tried to gain traction. Originally, he didn't think he'd even join a collegiate program because he wasn't sure the competitive level would match what he wanted. But Quach was drawn to the opportunity to build something meaningful, which is why he landed at Grand View and why he stayed.

Having Hustedt on board meant the extra time and energy Quach had been putting into recruiting and scheduling was moved off his plate.

"Ever since she's been here, it's taken a huge load off of me," Quach says. "Last year, I was struggling a lot in school, but now I have A's and B's in all my classes. I can step back and be a player now."

Hustedt's investment in her players extends beyond the arena. She encouraged each of them to support a teammate's performance in the fall theater production. (They had to text her what show they were each attending.) Every Monday evening and Thursday morning, she has workouts scheduled for them. Recently she took a group to an escape room for a team-building exercise.

"Are they having a good experience?" Hustedt says. "That's really what it comes down to."

"I don't think I could find a person that does what she does," Quach says. "She's amazing. I'm proud of her, and I'm happy that she's here."

As her players enter the draft for their League of Legends match, Hustedt moves to the couches to watch the stream. The room fills with chatter from the players as they kick off the game. The previous week had been rough for the squad, which was beaten handily by Zenith eSports, a semipro team from the Upsurge Premier league -- a multi-event conference that houses some of the top teams in the amateur and collegiate League of Legends scene. That loss was demoralizing, and Grand View hopes to rebound against UMass.

"We need a win," Hustedt says.

As Hustedt watches from the couch, one of the League JV players comes over to chat. She asks him how he is and how classes are going. She does this with all of her players. They talk about problems and what's going on in their lives. Hustedt gets them. She knows who needs a hug, and who needs to be publicly shamed into going to class.

"[Office] hours are sort of like suggestions to her," support player Wesley "Homecoming" Pratt says.

Grand View gets a win, but not without taking some lumps. The team splits the game with UMass, 1-1.

Two stop signs indicate Galva's city limits, one at the beginning of town and one on the way out. The distance between them is about four football fields going west to east. Outside of town, the fields of corn stretch to the horizon, the farmhouses dotting the landscape like lone ships across a sea.

The families that work the land have been here for generations. The Hustedts have had their farm for nearly a century. Over time, the Hustedts have expanded their property through purchase (and marriages) to farm 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans across all of their properties. That is considered small by local standards, the family is sure to say.

Hustedt's business acumen was formed on this farm. She watched her parents balance investing in equipment with being able to put food on the table in winter. While most kids were selling cups of lemonade for a quarter, Hustedt invested her time in raising chickens and worked her way to a $1,000 payday.

In her job, Hustedt is constantly analyzing where best to put her resources. She has to recruit players, decide what tournaments to attend and purchase equipment. Every choice she makes affects the funds she has available for something else. Compared with programs with thousands of square feet in space for their players or big schools with esports programs such as UC Irvine, Boise State, Ohio State, Missouri and Oklahoma, Grand View operates at the margins.

"We're a smaller private school," Hustedt says. "We don't have millions of dollars to use on esports."

Not that it's unfamiliar to Hustedt. The choices she has to make at Grand View are not so different from being a small farm trying to decide whether a new grain cart is worth the price, or whether installing a drying system at home is cost-effective.

But building a competitive team still poses the biggest challenge. Hustedt looks to recruit LoL players with a high Diamond ranking or above and at least Master and Grandmaster players in Overwatch. Those rankings are indicators of players who can at least compete for playoff spots in the upper echelon of college programs; the winners of the main collegiate Overwatch tournament in 2018 had a roster of Grandmaster players, and the qualifiers for the College League of Legends quarterfinals had players who were at Diamond or above.

Though Hustedt looks for those high-caliber players, they're not all eligible, and those who are remain in high demand at other colleges, too. Only 2.42 percent of League of Legends players in North America are even in the Diamond tier or above, according to League Graphs; Master and Grandmaster players sit in the top 13 worldwide or top 12 in the U.S. of Overwatch competitors, according to Overwatch Tracker.

For now, Hustedt is aiming lower. Many of her current players do not sport those rankings.

"We try to have a really good variety here," she says. "We'll never turn someone away unless they're an absolute leisure player."

Hustedt is still learning. That poses its own difficulties. Esports as a subculture comes with a substantial learning curve. There's the language and slang everyone uses, the places on the internet where people congregate, the spaces to find possible recruits, knowledge to be able to analyze talent, and then the games themselves. It's a lot to pick up.

"Some days I worry that because I'm not a hard-core gamer in the games we have here, that might affect the way I do my job," Hustedt says.

Hustedt, who is about the same age as most of her players, is able to connect with her squad on a personal level.

On the farm, she and her mother, Karla, prepare to sit down for dinner around their wooden table. Karla puts the casserole pan on the table and spoons some of the goulash onto her daughter's plate and hands her a bowl of canned fruit cocktail. Hustedt's father, Randy, is still out in the fields even though the sun has long since set.

Hustedt believes in the importance of education because of her parents. They required all of their children to complete a bachelor's degree in the field of their choice, even though each of them has always had a place on the farm. Hustedt wants the same for the students in her care.

"I take a lot of pride in them making sure that they stay on top of things," Hustedt says, "and making sure that the professors understand that [the players in her program] are here to buy in. They're not here just to play a video game."

Karla, 60, also grew up on a farm. She still hops in the tractor to drive around the grain cart, though she does it less often now. Hustedt's grandmother used to watch her while Karla and Randy worked the land every day.

On the farm, gender doesn't matter. Hustedt grew up riding her bike down the road to play with her friends like her brothers did years before her, playing sports like they did, helping on the farm like they did, even raising chickens like they once did. At no point was she ever not able to do something because she's a daughter rather than a son.

Hustedt's journey into esports has been the same. Despite the reputation gaming has for being hostile to women -- one that is certainly earned, given the experiences of women online -- the collegiate esports scene has been welcoming to her. Colleagues have welcomed her; her players respect her and don't treat her differently than they do McFarland. Her age being close to that of her students is more challenging to navigate than her gender.

"Age is hard," Hustedt says. "But in this industry, you're not going to get around it. You just have to find a balance. Right now, I think we're doing OK with it -- at least that's the feedback that they give me."

"It doesn't matter to me what the gender is of the person I'm working with as long as they bring the right skill set to the table," Quach says.

Hustedt has dinner with her parents and brother Randy on the farm.

Being the first woman in her position is just a thing that's true for Hustedt, but with four women athletes in her program, seeing a woman in charge can be meaningful. Mary Schabilion is a first-year student at Grand View from Baxter, Iowa, and plays on the JV volleyball squad as an outside hitter. She grew up playing video games with her father. Hustedt is converting her from Counter-Strike: Global Offensive to a tank player in Overwatch.

"It's really cool having a female director because it made it easier for me to approach her," Schabilion says. "I think I would have approached that little esports table regardless of it being male or female, but seeing Dana and knowing that right away there's this connection. I'm not going to be the only girl that shows up to be around a bunch of guys."

Some days, nothing seems to go right.

The overnight rain has dampened the field, pushing the start of the day back a couple of hours. The combine breaks, and little can be done while the mechanic works on it. The Hustedts are trying to finish the harvest at her grandmother's place this morning so they can move the equipment to another farm this afternoon, but that's not going to happen anytime soon.

"This happens all the time," Hustedt says.

The farm is Hustedt's happy place. This hiccup notwithstanding, there haven't been any injuries or catastrophic mechanical failures forcing the purchase of new equipment, and the yields have been good this year. It's hard work, but there isn't anything quite as calming as driving the tractor or the disc. She and her family have their own language of gestures and signs, and there are walkie-talkies for when those signals aren't properly received.

Hustedt sets up training and flex time for her players.

Wind turbines stand tall, the rotors spinning against the blue sky. The turbines have a flared square base like the Eiffel Tower instead of the sleek cylinder of today's turbines. In 1998, the family agreed to allow some of the land to be used for the first wind farm in Iowa. There are six on their farm and 257 turbines in total. No one had done something like that before in their area. Two decades later, there are wind turbines everywhere.

"Someone had to be the first," Randy says.

Hustedt's parents know very little about the job she has in Des Moines. They've watched Overwatch on television before, but the high-tech world of esports is a little far away. Even though Randy has an iPad in his combine that monitors the harvest and helps the machine literally drive itself, he prefers a flip phone.

Hustedt climbs into the tractor pulling the grain cart to catch the harvest corn from the combine. Her brother is pulling the disc. He is driving the corn to town. Hustedt looks to Randy and makes sure they're aligned before putting the tractor into gear.

Just another day at the office.

Katie Barnes is a writer/reporter for espnW. Follow them on Twitter at Katie_Barnes3.