“Esports is organized team-based, multiplayer online video gaming. Competitions among collegiate teams and professionals can take place in arenas in front of large audiences, and are streamed on the internet or broadcast on television.” – The University of Akron
Esports teams and arenas aren't new to the collegiate landscape. However, the expansion of esports seems to be ramping up at colleges and universities across a wide swathe of higher education.
An advanced Google search within .edu domains yielded about 166,000 results for "esports."
As this reddit post clearly illustrates, the growth of esports in higher education is a fast-moving train that often involves senior leadership:
“I'm staff at my local university and our university president has asked me to help him create an esports team. I'm really just doing some research for him so he can then hand it off to the right people/hire them. We're a good size regional university (9k population, about 6k on campus) with 11 D1 sports and recent appearances in the college World Series, NCAA track and field championships and NCAA basketball tournaments.”
The rise of collegiate esports is predicated on three distinct areas: varsity sports, casual gamers (sometimes part of a student organization), and esports-focused degrees/courses. Additionally, facilities, money, wellness, and gender diversity represent important aspects of collegiate esports.
You can't really have an esports team, club, or gaming area without an official campus space dedicated to all things related to esports. The proliferation of esports arenas within US and UK higher education has been phenomenal. Filled with the latest PC gaming equipment, chairs that look like they were removed from a Ferrari, and pay to play options, these esports arenas are fast becoming a mainstay within college and university facilities.
A quick Google search for "esports arena" (specifically on .edu domains) came up with more than 3,100 results.
When asked about the fee structure at the recently opened esports arena at the University of Washington, Justin Camputaro, Director of the Husky Union Building (the home of the arena) had this to say:
“Our space must pay for itself. The fees (along with reservations for events in the space) all cover all operating expenses: staffing (biggest expense), game licensing, marketing, and equipment replacement cycles.”
Always a fan of informal Twitter polls, I was amazed by the results from this tweet that received 169 votes:
With 45% of respondents saying that they either already had an esports area at their school or that they wished they had one, that paints a fairly clear picture of the status of esports arenas on college campuses.
At Keele University in the United Kingdom, while it's not necessarily an arena per se, they do have a fully kitted out esports gaming lab/suite for students who are part of their esports student society.
Across the pond at the University of California, Irvine, esports have been a "thing" for quite some time. Beginning in 2015, UCI was “the first public university to create an official esports program.” Their esports arena is fully decked out with “3,500 sq. ft. space with 72 top-of-the-line iBUYPOWER computers, Logitech gaming gear, and Vertagear chairs.”
The largest esports arena in the U.S. is in Florida. Full Sail University has created an 11,000+ square foot esports arena known as "The Fortress."
Apologies to Tiffin University as they used to have the largest collegiate esports arena at a respectable 4,000 square feet.
However, it's important to recognize that size isn't everything when it comes to esports arenas. At Boise State University's new facility, “program leaders are working to install first-generation blue-turf recycled from Boise State’s iconic football field in the new space.”
Varsity Esports Teams
If your institution has an arena then the next step is usually all about fielding a competitive team.
According to ESPN, there are around 125 varsity esports teams in North America. Although, NACE, the National Association of Collegiate Esports, says that there are currently more than 130 active collegiate varsity esports teams. Which is not to be confused with the Collegiate Starleague (CSL) that boasts of being “the world’s first collegiate gaming organization.” According to the CSL, their members include over 900 universities and 30,000 players.” And then there's Tespa, while not necessarily a varsity-level esports organization, their membership is made up of more than 270 collegiate chapters spanning the U.S. and Canada.
The origins of varsity esports can be traced back to a small college in Illinois. Beginning in 2014, Robert Morris University-Illinois was the first university to include esports as a varsity team.
Inside Higher Ed has been covering esports for several years:
“What was perhaps a wild pipe dream decades ago, merely a Dorito-fueled teenage daydream, has come true: colleges are paying students scholarships to play video games. But hold your gasps of indignation. The concept of collegiate esports has blossomed and become much more organized in recent years. Some smaller private institutions view gaming as a way to attract prospective students amid enrollment downturns, and even a number of Division I colleges and universities have entered this digital arena.”
In fact, the amount of money given out in the form of varsity scholarships is astonishing. According to an IHE article from earlier this year, “the current slew of [NACE] member colleges gave out just under $15 million in scholarships this academic year for students to strap on a headset, grab a mouse and keyboard, and enter the digital fray.”
In many ways, the creation (and rhetoric) of varsity esports teams/programs sounds very similar to any other collegiate sport:
“Building on the success and growth of the College’s esports club, the program’s goal is to establish Becker as a championship-driven esports powerhouse. Student-athletes will have access to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, as well as experienced staff and online training through Boston-based Gamer Sensei, the world’s top source for esports coaching. Scholarships of up to $5,000 per year will be awarded to select student-athletes based on ability, academics, communication skills and playing position.”
Esports majors/minors/degrees/courses might have been a novel phenomenon in the past, but nowadays, colleges and universities are striving to get programs up and running.
In the United Kingdom, one university that is leading the way is Staffordshire University with their BA in Esports as well as a Masters level program. Staffordshire also offers a BA in esports at their new Digital Institute London located in East London.
Across the pond in the U.S., there are a couple of frontrunners in the esports degree-granting space:
“We recognize the growing power of the esports industry, which is projected to be valued at $1.4 billion by 2020. That’s why we’ve decided to offer the first multi-track esports major in the United States, and the first esports major in Virginia, starting in fall 2019. Shenandoah is the first university in the country to offer this program.”
And at Caldwell University:
“A new Bachelor of Science degree in eSports Management will prepare students for careers in the popular electronic sports gaming industry with opportunities for employment in finance, marketing, event planning, operations, and entertainment. The program is one of the first of its kind in the nation and is being offered within Caldwell’s School of Business and Computer Science.”
For some universities, while a major or minor might not be in place, a course is the next best thing.
“An undergraduate course focused on the management and administration of eSports was unveiled by the Division of Sport Management. eSports Administration and Management examines the history, development, management, and operation of eSports players, teams, and competitions in contemporary society. St. John’s tries to find as many academic connection points as possible. There are plans to offer classes where students learn how to write the code for the games, as well as how to advance in the field as broadcasters, managers, and marketers for eSports.”
A general trend in the academic side of esports seems to be all about being “the first” in a particular program or focus. And that makes a lot of sense because the rise of esports at the college level could potentially be an important source of funding.
“Esports (not just within colleges) are expected to be valued at $1.4 billion by next year.”
The massive growth and interest in esports represents a boon for institutions in need of a recruitment/financial boost (at least within U.S. HE). Partnerships with the gaming industry aren't unlike other collegiate athletics deals with various corporations.
According to the UCI Division of Continuing Education:
“Traditional athletic apparel companies such as Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour are expected to compete for team jersey rights in the coming years and major telecom companies are acquiring gamer centric programming providers.
“About 90 percent of students on NACE teams are men.”
According to the UW's Camputaro:
“[Gender diversity] is a very real concern that we talk about. Unfortunately, we do not have as good of answers to this. Right now we are focused on talking about this a lot with the gaming student organizations and talk about a grassroots environment of being open and welcoming. Also actively encouraging women that the space and gaming is welcome to them. However, what we cannot control is the online arena where players are in other places that do have negative talk against women. This topic is one that we have agreed to tackle head on over this next year, especially as we build out a competitive program, to focus on co-ed [gaming] and inclusivity.”
UC Berkeley's Esports program has started an initiative aimed at “making gaming more inclusive for women at Cal and increasing female presence for Cal Esports programs.”:
“One of Student Affairs’ priorities is gender diversity in gaming. The Student Affairs’ Business Development team has established a working group, which includes representatives from the Women in Science & Engineering (WiSE) theme program, women who live in foothill, Residential Education, and students in the gaming community, to develop our Women in Gaming initiative. The Women in Gaming Initiative’s key goals include: equality, empowerment, and integration.”
Having played a fair amount of PC games myself, the issue of wellness for esports participants is an important issue. Both physical and mental well-being are important for esports.
At the UW, wellness is top of mind for esports arena managers. Camputaro has set up structures that encourage participants to take breaks and disconnect:
“Wellness is a big conversation point for us. For the immediate plan, wellness is around the question of the amount of time playing. We have a few ways we're tackling that now (and hopefully more to come): 1) by charging (vs free) we are hopeful students make good financial decisions to limit their play, 2) we only let people buy up to 10 hours at a time, 3) we don't allow food/drink in the space (these two items encourage people to have to get up and leave the space for basic needs, 4) our staff regularly roam the space and get to know the guests...this allows us to identify if anyone has been there a bit too long and we can help counsel them regarding [taking a break from playing].”
There's a really good chance that the NCAA will either try to compete directly with NACE as a governing association for collegiate esports or they will just absorb them into their gigantic organization.
Also, the creation of esports arenas, student clubs, and infrastructure seems to have a strong push from student affairs divisions, notably the student union / auxiliary services side of things.
It really will be fascinating to see how collegiate esports evolve with the combination of student affairs involvement, the proliferation of athletic scholarships / varsity teams, and academic-oriented esports programs.
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