Why universities are embracing esports

Don’t be surprised when esports elbows—or button-mashes—its way into becoming one of the most popular collegiate sports.

The day is coming when college sports fans go nuts for a perfectly-executed Overwatch dive the same way they cheer for a game-tying 3-pointer or a spectacular touchdown run.

While professional esports garner more attention, 60 universities and colleges in the U.S. have already created varsity esports teams for fan-pleasing games, including Overwatch, League of Legends and Dota 2, according to the National Association of Collegiate Esports. Expect that number to skyrocket as schools realize they are losing students to competitors with esports opportunities and scramble to keep up.

There are plenty of recruiting and branding reasons for higher education to embrace esports, but don’t discount the oldest reason anybody competes in anything: It’s a competition, and schools want to win.

“Collegiate esports is a coming wave,” says Chris Haskell, coach of the Boise State University esports teams. “Somebody is going to become the Alabama football of esports. That seat is currently open. Why can’t it be us? We just have to move quickly.”

Video courtesy of Boise State University.

The growth of collegiate esports will open more paths into competitive gaming for aspiring athletes, says Patrick Soulliere, who mentored elite esports athletes before becoming the Global eSports Gaming Marketing Manager at Ballistix. Donning school colors, those athletes will have a chance to tap into the same fervor surrounding basketball’s March Madness or football’s Championship Bowl Series.

“College sports is one of the great American pastimes and something people across the country look to as building the athletes of tomorrow,” Soulliere says. “Now gamers will be part of that.”

The University of Akron started a varsity esports program and will field teams next fall playing League of Legends, Overwatch, Counterstrike: Global Offensive, Hearthstone, and Rocket League. Michael Fay, who coaches the Akron teams, says the university started a varsity program for three reasons:

  1. Create a community on campus for gamers who share the same interests but may not have ever met while playing online from their dorm room.
  2. Contribute to a campus culture of mastery where gamers can gain the transferable skills of leadership, communication, mental toughness, and discipline by pushing themselves to excel in competitive gaming just as an athlete would in competitive sports.
  3. Provide experiential learning opportunities for students in the variety of fields that revolve around the esports industry, such as broadcasting, business development, computer engineering, and game design.

Fay says the program will attract students to Akron and teach skills that complement those gained in the classroom.

“Ultimately, the program will be appealing to prospective students and give them an opportunity to game constructively,” Fay says. “They can apply the tools they learn from pursuit of mastery in esports to their other pursuits both academic and professional.”

Video courtesy of University of Akron

College isn’t cheap, which could make collegiate esports even more attractive to students, Soulliere says. Traditional collegiate sports are heavily regulated, limiting the number of scholarships available to each school and the benefits, financial or otherwise, that athletes can receive. Since esports aren’t regulated (see box), collegiate esports athletes have far more opportunities to receive and earn money – including from playing esports.

Boise State is dreaming big. In its first year, its varsity esports program racked up more than 100 intercollegiate matches and qualified for playoffs in three games, including its Hearthstone team, which qualified for the national championship tournament. In addition to 47 student athletes competing on five teams, about 250 students participated in one way or another. Some of those chipped in on the broadcast team, which aired competitions and compiled slick highlights packages on the program’s YouTube channel.

Those students supporting the actual esports athletes were a big reason BSU created its varsity program, Haskell says. They come from a variety of majors and bolster their departments’ curricula with hands-on experience that could shape their careers. It’s all part of Boise State’s push to better prepare students for a future in which industries and jobs change rapidly with technology.

“I always tell students that the job you are perfect for hasn’t been invented yet,” Haskell says. “Get involved. That’s the way you find your niche, by chasing the things you love passionately, to try to find any opportunity to do them.”

In Year 2, the university is building a state-of-the-art “Esports Battleground” which will serve as the Broncos’ home field with gaming PCs powered by Ballistix Tactical DDR4 memory. The new venue will also feature spectator seating and be open to the public to play games for $3 an hour. Haskell also hopes to offer scholarships and increase recruiting efforts.

What does “varsity” mean, anyway?

Today, more than 300 universities and colleges in the U.S. have esports or gaming clubs, but only 60 have launched official varsity programs. So, what’s the difference?

The distinction may vary from school to school, but in general, varsity sports are governed by either the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) or the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Those sports are housed in collegiate athletic departments and funded by a combination of athletics donations, university funding, licensing, and tickets. Varsity programs usually operate under oversight by the Office of Compliance to assure they are keeping up with NCAA rules.

Club sports, on the other hand, are funded by student fees, the student participants, fundraising drives, or ticket sales. They are not regulated by the NCAA or NAIA. Sometimes club sports sometimes duplicate existing university-sanctioned sports, which often happens with games such as soccer and basketball. Other times, club sports are more obscure than traditional games, such as a growing sport popularized by the Harry Potter books, Quidditch.

However, the line separating varsity and club sports is blurrier when it comes to esports. Neither the NCAA nor NAIA regulate esports, leaving the universities and colleges creating varsity esports programs to establish their own rules. As such, varsity esports programs have much more leeway in matters such as giving scholarships and finding funding sources than traditional sports operating under tight guidelines.

The BSU esports teams didn’t get their university-sponsored PCs until December of 2017. In its first year, the program’s viewership, including on its YouTube and Twitch channels, already exceeded attendance of the majority of the university’s varsity sports (though far behind the most popular, including football and basketball).

Haskell expects esports viewership numbers to multiply for BSU and across the collegiate esports landscape. He also predicts more universities and colleges will jump into the game even if they must figure things out as they go.

“We didn’t even have computers in the beginning,” Haskell says. “We didn’t have a room. We just said, ‘Guess what? We’re a varsity program.’ And we went from there.”

Soulliere expects many more schools to follow suit as esports viewership grows around the globe.

“This is the start of something amazing,” he says. “I can’t wait to see where college esports is in five to 10 years.”

Patrick Soulliere
Global eSports Gaming Marketing Manager at Ballistix

“Everyone knows how expensive college is,” Soulliere says. “Imagine if a gamer could pay part or all of that from gaming sponsorships. I hope this stays and helps some students that would otherwise struggle financially to have an easier and less stressful college experience.”

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