A Hattiesburg family was honored Nov. 2 with the dedication of the Payne Family Esports Facility at the University of Mississippi, celebrating a Division I program that serves as a strong student recruitment tool.
Jennifer and Abb Payne and their children Ford and Arden were the focus of a tribute from Chancellor Glenn Boyce during the ceremony on the lawn of the E.F. Yerby Center, the home of the competitive-level gaming facility. Family and friends were present to witness the dedication.
“We have so many students involved in esports these days,” said Chancellor Glenn Boyce. “To have an organization and a real program that is competing across the nation, and, across the globe in many ways, is incredibly exciting for our students and gives us an opportunity to be a leader in the field of esports at the University of Mississippi.
“I’m so thankful for Abb and Jennifer Payne for the fact that they saw the vision of what esports could do for our university and our students, and they provided the resources to take us to a brand new transformational level.”
The Paynes’ gifts have provided major funds to renovate existing space into the Payne Family Esports Facility; cover operational expenses such as team travel, technology and staff; and establish scholarships for the recruitment and support of students in the esports program.
“The impact of the Paynes’ support has been monumental. It has set a major example of how alumni and donors can get connected to universities across the U.S.,” said John McDermott, director of the Ole Miss Esports program who joined the university in August 2022 after building a successful program at Long Island University.
“A strong esports program says Ole Miss is incredibly progressive in its thought process about what it takes to grow a university.”
An emerging industry, esports has grown exponentially with the advent of live-streaming services. Newzoo estimates that by this year, the number of esports viewers globally will grow to 646 million, with “occasional viewers” and “esports enthusiasts” growing from 245 million to 351 million and 198 million to 295 million, respectively, between 2019 and 2023.
According to Fortune Business Insights, the estimated value of the global esports market is projected to grow from $1.72 billion in 2023 to $6.75 billion by 2030.
The university has established an interdisciplinary esports minor, which offers six courses from the School of Business Administration as well as other classes from across the academic spectrum. Seventy-six students are enrolled in the first classes of the minor, which began this fall, McDermott said.
To help grow the program at Ole Miss, the Paynes established the Jennifer and Abb Payne Esports Facility Fund, the Payne Family Esports Operations Fund, the Payne Family Esports Gamers Fund and the Jennifer and Abb Payne Esports Gamers Scholarship Endowment.
“Our family is extremely honored to be associated with the Ole Miss ESports Team, one of the largest student groups on campus,” Abb Payne said. “We wanted to find a unique way to support Ole Miss and feel very blessed to provide scholarships, facilities and support to such a great group of students and administrators.
“We’ve had a ton of fun following the LANSharks and look forward to them continuing to lead the nation in this fast-growing industry that produces very high-quality graduates in all kinds of degree fields.”
First founded as a student club in 2017, Ole Miss Esports transitioned to a university program in January 2019 shortly after the group hosted a successful Esports Egg Bowl competition with the rival esports club from Mississippi State University. Approximately 300 students play 17 games competitively or casually as part of Ole Miss Esports, which has experienced success.
The Ole Miss League of Legends Team is ranked No. 3 in the nation, the Rocket League Team is in the Top 10 nationally and the Omega Strikers Team is ranked in the Top 25, McDermott said.
The program was also recently chosen as one of nine institutions in the Division 1 Pilot Program of the National Association of Collegiate Esports, McDermott said. NACE is a national collegiate esports nonprofit organization and serves the same function as the NCAA does to traditional sports.
“As a Carnegie R1 research institution, we’re always looking for ways to connect novel thought to research, and we will be pursuing research in this program,” he said.
Two Ole Miss professors – George McClellan, of the School of Education, and Thomas Andre, of the School of Applied Sciences – are conducting academic research around esports and higher education. In conjunction with Sirkka Jarvenpaa, of the University of Texas, Tony Ammeter, Ole Miss associate provost, dean of general studies and associate professor of management and management information systems, recently presented on esports at a conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, and is set to present at another conference in December in India.
Scott Reynolds, of Tallahassee, Florida, a sophomore economics major, was recruited to Ole Miss from Florida State University by the esports program.
“There are plenty of other universities that have large esports programs, but Ole Miss is definitely the premier program based on how much support they give,” he said. “The great opportunity to play the game that I love at Ole Miss and pursue a degree at the same time is not lost on me. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to attend Ole Miss.”
Jarrett Peterson, a junior computer science major from Southaven, is captain of the Overwatch Team.
“I would like to thank the Payne family. Honestly, their gift means the world to me,” he said. “I’ve met all these wonderful people through esports, and it’s really had an amazing impact on my life. Almost every single person I interact with comes from esports – my best friends.”
The Paynes also have hosted Ole Miss recruitment events for students in south Mississippi. Their contributions to Ole Miss athletics have been honored with the naming of an entrance to The Sandy and John Black Pavilion at Ole Miss, the basketball arena.
Abb Payne is founder and CEO of Payne Cos., a family office and investment manager to its own and other diversified entrepreneurial endeavors. The company owns, co-owns and manages home health, hospice and private-duty companies, specialty pharmacy operations, multiple assisted-living facilities and many other businesses throughout the Southeast.
The Payne Esports funds are open to support from individuals and organizations. Gifts can be made by sending a check, with the fund’s name noted on the memo line, to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655, or by giving online at https://give.olemiss.edu.
For more information on supporting Ole Miss Esports, contact Nikki Neely, assistant vice chancellor for development, at email@example.com or 662-915-6678.
By Tina H. Hahn/UM Development