Ohio State University, home of an 80-seat esports arena and four competitive video-gaming teams, is taking its investment in esports to the next level. It is becoming the first state university to introduce a formal degree program focused on the growing job market in the $1 billion esports industry.
The university plans to start offering a bachelor of science program in game studies and esports in fall 2020.
OSU's full-throttle embrace of the academic potential of gaming is part of a growing national trend in higher ed as colleges and universities increasingly seek new students, and new revenue streams, at a time of declining enrollment. Shenandoah University, Becker College, Boise State University, Full Sail University and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology have all created programs focused on the digital gaming and entertainment industry. The University of Kentucky is considering launching a certificate program in esports and the University of California, Irvine, currently offers an esports management certificate.
Degree programs in esports are pulling in college-age gamers, who enthusiastically seek careers in their dream industry. But some academics and other higher education experts are questioning the wisdom of developing such programs and their legitimacy as academic disciplines. The opponents are skeptical of the young esports industry and worry universities are developing substandard programs as an “enrollment gimmick,” with little guarantee of future success.
"Who knows how much sticking power esports has," said Anthony Hennen of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, a conservative public policy institute in North Carolina. "It’s exploded in popularity, but I would be wary of a college giving a student academics specifically around esports instead of a broader focus. It could be handicapping students in the long run."
Hennen, managing editor for the center's published content, said universities touting these programs are getting ahead of themselves.
Hennen is dubious of esports' being offered as an officially approved student activity and warned of "higher ed’s growth into an entertainment juggernaut." He noted that mostly private and small colleges in need of enrollment boosts are starting esports programs.
Ohio State, which has more than 68,000 students, is clearly an exception. It initially launched esports classes across multiple disciplines in 2018, calling the move “the first of its kind in higher education.”
Starting next fall, students will have the choice of degree tracks in esports and game creation, esports management or game applications in medicine and health, said Rob Messinger, a spokesman for Ohio State’s Office of Academic Affairs.
Bruce A. McPheron, OSU's executive vice president and provost, said university administrators were forward-looking in their approach and were confident the new program would prove to be ahead of the curve in academia.
“Ohio State is always in the business of inventing the future, and our eSports curriculum will train students who do just that -- invent applications that we have not even imagined,” he said in a written statement. “Whether they go on to become leaders in the e-gaming industry or to unlock the potential of the human brain, Ohio State students will be at the forefront of inventing the future.”
Deborah Grzybowski, an Ohio State engineering professor who has led the two-year effort to create the esports major, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But she told National Public Radio that some faculty members "do not feel that Ohio State should have an undergraduate major or a graduate major that has the name 'esports' in it." She noted that students repeatedly requested the university offer an esports major.
"The first thing I always say is, we're not teaching our students how to play games," she told NPR. "That is really important to understand. We are teaching our students everything surrounding that."
While the degree program will be housed under the College of Arts and Sciences, students will be able to take esports-related classes in the schools of business, engineering, medicine and education and human ecology, Messinger said. The Arts and Sciences Curriculum Committee, the University Senate’s Council on Academic Affairs and the Ohio Department of Higher Education will need to sign off on the creation of the major before it is formally adopted, he said.
The degree proposal has not yet been reviewed by the University Senate or approved by the five curricular committees of the colleges that would provide esports classes, Eric Bielefeld, co-chair of the group's academic affairs committee, said in an email. The proposal will not reach the state's higher education approval process until it is approved by the university, said Jeff Robinson, director of communications for the Ohio Department of Higher Education.
Hennen, of the Martin Center for Academic Renewal, said faculty members should be heavily involved in the process of creating esports degrees and that the decision making should not be the sole purview of administrators and provosts pushing such programs as an attractive industry for universities.
"The more you include faculty, the more nuanced it’s going to be, and you’re going to see the pitfalls more easily," Hennen said.
Faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences at OSU have voiced concerns about their capacity to deliver esports courses and sustain and evaluate the interdisciplinary program, said Meg Daly, who chaired the department's curriculum committee last May, when the proposal was first reviewed.
She said enrollment and retention boosts are not guaranteed by an esports major in the College of Arts and Sciences because the curriculum would involve different academic disciplines in various departments, and students interested in esports could still enroll in a different college. It is unclear to faculty members whether the college would benefit.
“Because it is being built from several pools of expertise and resources, the committee had concerns about program viability, ability to absorb student interest and impact on other programs,” Daly said in an email. “In general, there was consensus that there was likely to be student interest in eSports majors.”
Some people are wondering why institutions should dedicate resources to “teaching kids how to push buttons,” said Welch Suggs Jr., associate director of the Grady Sports Media program at the University of Georgia. He is working on a summary of esports research to present to college presidents who are members of the Council of Independent Colleges.
“The legitimate question is, are schools approaching this with a level of academic rigor for students to get a level of content knowledge and bring it into other areas of their lives?” Suggs said. “It looks sometimes like an enrollment gimmick to get more students … but if it’s approached the right way, what’s so different about teaching esports than other content production?”
There is a misconception in higher education that esports academic programs involve students learning and enhancing their gaming skills, when in reality, esports is taught as a subdivision of several other subjects such as sport management, marketing, media and communications and exercise science, said Joey Gawrysiak, director of the esports program at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va.
Shenandoah launched two major offerings in esports in fall 2019 and hails itself as the first U.S. institution to offer a bachelor's of science in esports management and esports media and communication. The program is about two months old, with 15 students pursuing majors and 20 studying minors, Gawrysiak said. Shenandoah also has a varsity esports team that competes through the National Association of Collegiate Esports, or NACE, but many students who study esports as an academic endeavor do not participate on the team, Gawrysiak said.
“Some students just want to understand the industry,” Gawrysiak said. “You don’t have to play the sport to be involved in the sport management industry. Gaming is kind of this universal language that this generation understands … one of the big focuses for the esports curriculum is yes, it’s esports focused, but a student isn’t pigeonholed to work in esports after getting this degree. They’re learning traditional business disciplines like marketing and accounting through the lens of esports, so they’re passionate and excited about it.”
Gawrysiak, who travels to conferences and universities across the country to share esports curricula with professors and administrators who are less familiar with the industry, said he spent much of his time in curriculum development at Shenandoah explaining what esports is to other faculty members and university administrators.
There is a scarcity of educators qualified to teach and develop esports-related curricula because the industry is so new, said Michael Brooks, the executive director of NACE. The association provides esports curriculum and training materials for faculty members; it also serves as the governing body for varsity-level esports competition for more than 170 member institutions.
“It probably isn’t surprising that there are more programs that are starting up esports departments than there are qualified individuals to lead those programs,” Brooks said. “You can easily find someone who can coach in the higher education space, but it’s harder to find someone with gaming knowledge … There is a gap there. We’re talking about a five-year-old industry. People have not had the opportunity to work in the space through an internship or entry-level job.”
There is a fear among industry and faculty leaders that students with esports degrees will be considered too specialized by potential employers, said Todd Harris, president of Skillshot Media, an esports production company. He believes successful esports degree programs will be those that introduce students to an array of skills -- programming, software engineering, public relations, production and video editing -- that can be applied outside the esports industry.
“That would be the advice I’d give to my own kids,” Harris said. “It’s great to follow your passion, but you also want a plan B … Understanding how games are made, how events are made and how great media production is made and having actual tangible skills that you can contribute to these projects is a way to be able to be attached to this very relevant area of esports, but also be able to go broader.”
Advocates of college esports programs agree the field is becoming an avenue for colleges to recruit young people who may have not considered going to college for a traditional degree.
Jason Anderson, a first-year student at Shenandoah who is studying esports and mass communications, is from a small town in Kansas, where gaming is fairly popular. He said he would have never enrolled at Shenandoah if the university did not have an esports program, he said.
If an esports degree was offered closer to Anderson’s hometown, “half of the people I know over there would be into it,” he said. His former high school counselor even asked him to visit the school to talk about his experience in the major. Anderson wants to encourage young people in his hometown to consider getting esports degrees rather than taking the typical path of getting a traditional college degree, joining the military or getting a job in construction.
“The naysayers are always like, ‘How are you going to make a degree out of video games? Why are you staying up until 2 a.m. playing Call of Duty? You’re not going to get anything out of it,’” Anderson said.
Anderson said his father initially opposed the idea of studying esports in college -- he wanted Jason to take over the family landscaping equipment business -- but eventually came around and is now very encouraging.
“I really appreciate the opportunity to be here and have this path that’s molding us all into esports jobs. Without a degree or a connection, it’s very hard to get a career.”
The esports industry is largely supportive of the introduction of degree programs and has donated equipment and funding to develop esports programs at institutions, Harris said. The University of Kentucky announced a partnership with global esports company Gen.G in October to explore creating a gaming certificate program. The university will also offer a speaker series focused on the esports industry, according to a university press release.
For companies wanting to hire people with the knowledge and skills to work in esports industry jobs, the stakes for successful degree programs are high. There are limited pools of people with knowledge of gaming, and companies are having to hire traditional sports management personnel, who do not necessarily understand the industry, Harris said.
“What the future looks like is a set of endemic esports companies working more closely with universities to build programs, sponsor research and start to embrace it the way we’ve seen with traditional sports,” Harris said.
Several different esports companies donated equipment -- gaming chairs, headsets, microphones, keyboards and computer mice -- to Shenandoah’s esports degree and varsity program, Gawrysiak said. The university is also purchasing expensive computers and software needed for esports. Shenandoah recognizes its opportunity to be one of the first institutions with a comprehensive degree program structured around a promising industry, he said.
“They understand that this is growing and they see it as an opportunity to get in at the ground level,” Gawrysiak said. “There’s work that we’re doing with people in the industry -- significant players, and possible internships and job opportunities through these people. Everybody feels like, ‘Let’s make this happen, let’s figure out what’s best for the industry, because we want to see it grow.’ Gamers want to see esports be successful.”