Authored by Karissa Tirinzoni and Ryan Berezansky
Esports on college and university campuses emerged in 2014 at Robert Morris University in Chicago. Since then, more than 175 colleges and universities have started an officially recognized varsity esports program according to the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE). With the esports market on track to surpass $1.5 billion in revenue by 2023, many institutions have started or are in the process of implementing an esports program on their campuses.
Collegiate esports program considerations
- Varsity vs. student-run organization: Colleges and universities need to consider whether their esports program will be a varsity sport or student-run organization. There are pros and cons to both paths, with student-run organizations having fewer compliance considerations than varsity sports.
Varsity programs can become a member of the NACE or other regulatory bodies since the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) does not currently regulate esports. Organizations like NACE provide standardized rules and compliance requirements, work with the media and publishers and help with student athlete recruitment. Student-run organizations can connect and collaborate through the Collegiate Star League (CSL) and other leagues. Across North America, 1,800 schools and 11,000 teams make up the CSL network, often partnering with Twitch and other platforms to broadcast games.
- Equipment and facilities: Similar to traditional sports teams, esports require at least basic equipment to run the program. The most common equipment needed includes:
- Powerful computers (including graphics cards)
- Keyboards (usually mechanical)
- Mice (usually with adjustable Dots per Inch [DPI])
- Monitors (typically 24-32 inches with higher resolutions, hertz and refresh rates)
- High-quality gaming chairs
- Fast, reliable internet connections
While most players prefer desktop computers because of energy usage, traveling with the equipment can be a challenge that should be addressed upfront. Institutions should also consider creating a gaming facility for the team to practice and host competitions and/or tournaments. While many players personally stream their games online, fans increasingly also enjoy viewing tournaments live. For example, one of the most extensive and notable esports facilities is at the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine), which houses more than 70 gaming computers and a large arena for games and competitions.
Given the above considerations are all an institution needs to begin an esports program, the upfront investment is typically less than a traditional sports team. The average esports program startup expense is $41,000, based on NACE membership statistics and reporting. Depending on what institutions hope to achieve with their esports program, additional expenses for a state-of-the-art gaming arena may be considered.
- Financial aid and scholarships: A main draw for many current and prospective students interested in esports programs is scholarships. As of 2018, NACE member institutions offered $15 million in esports scholarships and financial aid. As of 2020, the CSL has also awarded over $1M in scholarship money to student gamers.
- Student eligibility: For varsity-level programs, colleges and universities need to consider which students are eligible to participate on the esports team. Similar to NCAA eligibility rules, NACE and CSL have specific rules and require students to sign an Intent to Compete (ITC) form each year. Examples of eligibility rules include full-time student status and a limit of five playing years.
- Recruitment and marketing: How much energy and resources is the university willing to put into recruitment and marketing of their esports program? Institutions will have to hire and invest in personnel who understand esports and can connect with the players. To promote programs, some collegiate esports teams offer summer training camps for high school and middle school students. This helps institutions connect with players at a younger age and build a mentorship program, similar to many traditional sports.
- Competitive game selection: Esports coaches and institutional leaders must determine how many and which games they will include in their program. This activity is usually reevaluated at least annually to determine if new games on the market should be added or if current games are no longer being competed. The types of games and platforms offered will impact recruiting decisions as well. For example, a student who competitively plays Rocket League will look at institutions whose programs focuses on that game over League or Legends or Overwatch.
- Esports and STEM education overlap: The majority of esports players declare science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors when entering college, with 62% of League of Legends players in Riot Games leagues being STEM majors (Michael Sherman, Riot Games’ Director of Collegiate esports). A study conducted by UC Irvine shows that esports provides support for STEM fields through problem-solving, scientific methodology, using data and evidence and technological proficiency.
Colleges and universities should keep the following concerns top of mind while considering an esports program:
- Gaming is typically seen as a male-dominated area, with 72% of esports competition viewers being males (IDC and Esports Charts, 2020). However, 46% of video game players worldwide are females (Entertainment Software Association, 2019). For varsity-level teams, this could become a Title IX issue if not monitored properly.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) has named gaming addiction or gaming disorder an official medical condition. Consequences of gaming addiction include skipping meals and classes to focus on video games. While the disorder affects only a small proportion of individuals, colleges and universities should consider how they will support and monitor students to prevent them from developing this disorder, and have resources available for students if treatment measures are necessary.
- Unlike NCAA programs that have the challenge of keeping players as amateurs, esports leagues are more flexible since there are no rules against players working or having sponsors outside the university’s league. Many players use sites such as Twitch to stream themselves playing games and receive money through donations, advertisement revenue, subscriptions and sponsors. Players frequently enter into tournaments where they can make thousands of dollars in prize money. Currently, there are no esports regulatory bodies at the collegiate level that are stringent on amateurism rules. However, institutions should be prepared for possible rule changes.
- Issues with intellectual property (IP) may arise as game publishers such as Riot Games, Valve and Blizzard own the IP for their video games. While institutions are starting to develop independent esports programs, the publishers essentially have control over the esports teams, leagues, players and broadcasting deals.
Future of esports and higher education
With the growth of esports across colleges and universities, comes opportunities to develop both academic and extracurricular programs related to competitive gaming. Institutions are starting to offer classes and degrees in esports and related fields. Gaming and esports courses are offered within engineering, business, communications and computer design departments. The thought is not to filter students to play professionally, but to provide them with knowledge to enter into the esports field from any angle. For example, many sports management majors are athletic coaches, trainers, agents and broadcasters.
As esports clubs and varsity teams become more popular, prospective students will take into account which institutions offer these programs when deciding where to attend college. Institutions should strongly consider if an esports program is the right fit for their campus culture and to stay competitive.