The meteoric rise of varsity esports
What is esports?
Lazy, unmotivated, and antisocial have been the cruel adjectives used to describe gamers for decades. In a popular episode of South Park, the main characters, Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny, work together to defeat a common enemy in World of Warcraft. In the course of a satirical montage, the boys become morbidly obese and covered in acne as they advance in the game. Although this gamer trope has been endlessly regurgitated, it is far from what is happening in esports.
Instead, diversity, inclusion, teamwork, and socialization are what draw people from all around the globe into the world of esports, an industry expected to surpass $1.8 billion in revenue by 2022.
In esports, individuals and teams play video games competitively in front of spectators. Universities have been exploring opportunities to merge education and technology by promoting esports education, providing scholarships and arming students with degrees, skills, and knowledge for work in the virtual world.
The dawn of esports
Although the internet wasn’t created until the early 1970s, esports emerged nearly a decade prior. In October 1972, Stanford University held the first video game competition, in which gamers played Spacewar for a chance to win a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, games like Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Vs Super Mario Bros were played in arcade game competitions.
In recent years, esports has exploded. Nations big and small have established leagues and participate in large international tournaments. The prizes have come a long way from a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone. Some of the biggest tournaments in 2021 will have prize pools in the millions. One of the largest and most-anticipated events is the League of Legends 2021 World Championship, which has a prize pool of over $2.2 million. In October 2021, the Dota 2 International began, with the largest prize pool in esport history, of just over $40 million.
In 2020, 5.9 million viewers tuned in to watch the NBA finals. That same year, 46 million people watched the League of Legends World Championships.
Director of Marketing for CSL Esports, Hung Tran, says a turning point for esports came in 2017, when rappers Drake and Ninja streamed their game of Fortnite. “Hundreds of thousands of people watched one of the biggest celebrities in the world play video games on Twitch. From that moment forward, it truly felt like gaming had finally gained mainstream acceptance. It was now cool to be a gamer.”
In 2020, 5.9 million viewers tuned in to watch the NBA finals. That same year, 46 million people watched the League of Legends World Championships. Esports’ rise in popularity has taken the world by storm, and universities have caught on.
Why have universities taken interest in esports?
Jeffrey Donnelley, CEO and co-founder of the esport tournament platform MEGAFANS says, “Colleges develop our future thought leaders and understand that esports is on the cutting edge of the entertainment industry. So it makes sense that colleges invest in esports as part of the future.”
Colleges and universities around North America have created associations, leagues, and programs to support esports students at the collegiate level.
Colleges and universities around North America have created associations, leagues, and programs to support esports students at the collegiate level. The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), the only governing body for varsity esports, was started in 2016. As of July 2021, NACE began the multi-company partnership, NACE Starleague, with several other top dogs in collegiate esports. With more than 14,500 students from 600 colleges and universities, it is the largest league in North America. NACE Starleague will bring leadership, institutional support, competitive experience, and scholarship opportunities to aspiring varsity esports athletes.
“Colleges and universities are quickly recognizing the significant power and growth potential associated with esports,” Hung says, “which creates tremendous opportunities with branding and sponsorship as well as developing pathways to success for students. This includes esports curriculums as well as building communities that empower students to get the most out of their higher education experience.”
More than just playing video games
There may have only been a handful of careers in this field 30 years ago, but now there are a myriad of occupations centered around esports, and playing video games is just the tip of the iceberg. This field is a fountain of innovation, creativity, teamwork, and collaboration.
Universities are offering certification, undergraduate, postbaccalaureate, and graduate programs specifically geared to fortify students with knowledge and prowess for employability in esports.
With individuals flocking to esports to develop themselves professionally, colleges are mirroring this demand by establishing contemporary programs that will arm students with employable skills. Hung says, “These schools recognize the opportunity to build a curriculum focused on esports, preparing students for the many industry jobs available after college. Major publishers like Epic, Riot, and EA employ tens of thousands of software developers, systems engineers, marketers, business developers, and more.”
Universities are offering certification, undergraduate, postbaccalaureate, and graduate programs specifically geared to fortify students with knowledge and prowess for employability in esports. This semester, Miami University is offering a 30-week online esports management certificate. Students will learn about broadcasting, brand management, and business in the context of esports.
Universities have not limited themselves to certificates — degrees in this field are also increasingly available. The University of New Haven offers a Bachelor’s of Science in Esports and Gaming, and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology has a Bachelor of Science in Esports Management, Production, and Performance. Colleges are also creating financial aid opportunities for prospective esports students, with the support of major associations, leagues, and organizations.
Scholarships and grants for esport students
Universities and colleges now have scholarship opportunities for varsity esport players, just as they do for traditional athletics. Depending on their qualifications and which institutions they choose, students can earn partial or full-ride scholarships. The following are a few examples.
- High School Esports League offers a $150,000 scholarship prize pool for top teams
- Harrisburg University offers their qualifying students full-ride scholarships via tryouts
- Varsity Esports Foundation offers financial assistance for middle schools and high schools in low-income neighborhoods to help their esports teams participate in online leagues
- Since 2009, CSL Esports has awarded over $1 million in scholarships
Next College Student Athlete (NCSA) offers students a comprehensive guide to esport scholarships, including information about how to qualify and apply, what to expect in a tryout, and academic requirements. As with other kinds of scholarships, requirements will vary depending on the granting institution or association. Traditionally, scholarships are awarded on the basis of essays, but with esport scholarships, many students play for a chance to win.
Is esports pandemic-proof?
COVID19 hit many industries hard, including traditional sports. Sold out arenas were empty, practice facilities collected dust, and athletes were unable to compete. Although many of the larger esports tournaments that are normally held in person were also affected, varsity esports continued to flourish. “In just the past 3 years, the number of esports participants on campus has expanded significantly, even during COVID,” Hung notes.
Although higher education institutions around the country shifted to distance learning and traditional sports were interrupted, varsity esports programs, participation, and activity were seemingly unaffected.
Esports is unique because it is played online, and although teamwork and collaboration are fundamental, they can be practiced remotely, if necessary. An article published by S&P Global Market Intelligence said esports was “turbocharged” during the pandemic; programming schedules were kept up, and viewership was not compromised. Reports from Statista indicate that esports was not only unaffected in 2020, but engagement in fact skyrocketed. Several factors played an important role in the rise of esports in 2020, including:
- government-mandated social distancing
- growth in streaming platforms
- continued shift to digital modes of entertainment
- slow restart of traditional sports
Varsity esports was no exception. Although higher education institutions around the country shifted to distance learning and traditional sports were interrupted, varsity esports programs, participation, and activity were seemingly unaffected. “For the fall semester of 2021, NACE Starleague is reporting 223 Varsity programs out of 489 total schools, a 25% increase from pre-COVID numbers” Hung notes.
The future of varsity esports
Esports is rapidly becoming a colossal contender in the sporting world. Jeffrey Donnelley estimates that esports will become an NCAA rated sports program faster than any other sport in history. At the 2020 (held in 2021) Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the Olympics International Committee took its first big step into esports by including the Olympic Virtual Series in the leadup to the official games. There is also talk of esports becoming an official Olympic event at the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
With the skills learned in their esport programs or from playing esports at the varsity level, they will be equipped to enter the 21st century workforce.
“Gaming has truly opened up a world of possibilities for college students around the world,” says Hung. There seems to be no end in sight for esports at the varsity and professional levels. As technology continues to advance, so will esports. Increasing use of augmented reality (AR) and mobile gaming like MEGAFANS, which uses blockchain technology, are just a few of the ways esports may evolve in the future.
As students graduate from these unique programs, they will bring contemporary insight and innovation. With the skills learned in their esport programs or from playing esports at the varsity level, they will be equipped to enter the 21st century workforce. Support for aspiring and current esport students is pouring in from different avenues, creating a prosperous and thriving gaming community.