College esports offer a twist on traditional athletics, complete with scholarships
In many ways, it’s a familiar scene. A player turns on a dime, gets past the opponent, and puts points on the scoreboard. The crowd goes wild. The triumph comes from sound strategy, teamwork, and quick reflexes. Time runs out, and the team huddles to celebrate its victory. The players represent their school, most of them are on scholarship, and their coaches recruited them for their particular skills in the arena. But this isn’t a football or basketball game. It’s college esports, and it’s quickly bringing in big interest, and big money, much like its predecessors on the gridiron and hardwood have done for many years.
What began as a club-level activity at a handful of colleges and universities throughout the country has now exploded as the popularity of esports and streaming on services such as Twitch have legitimized gaming as a spectator sport. To date, more than 200 schools offer college esports. There’s even a governing body, the National Association of Collegiate Esports, overseeing and organizing competitions.
The NACE’s Starleague spring grand finals pitted schools against each other in League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League, Super Smash Bros., Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Call of Duty. The Starleague began to play last fall, and just like with big-time college sports, sponsors are helping to pay the bills. The NACE has deals with CSL Esports/Playfly, Nerd Street Gamers, and Mainline.
“Working together with some of the biggest powerhouses in the collegiate esports industry enables us to bring the greatest value to students and administrators while maintaining the institutional voice for students and staff,” NACE executive director Michael Brooks told Sports Video Group. “That voice is critical for the long-term success of esports. Additionally, students and institutions will all have opportunities at all levels — varsity, junior varsity, and club. This, in turn, enables us to grow each space together.”
The prize pool at the NACE spring grand finals was $48,000, but esports is a $2 billion industry, and pro tournaments routinely have prizes in the millions and tens of millions of dollars. It might not pack 100,000-seat stadiums like college football does every fall Saturday, but college esports is growing by leaps and bounds, and schools are racing to get in on the action.
Recruitment & Scholarships
Students and their parents are eager to take advantage as well. As you are undoubtedly aware if you have children of a certain age, college is expensive, and the bills go up yearly. Scholarships can cover some costs, and skilled gamers can cash in. Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa., which started its esports program in 2019, offers up to $25,000 per year in scholarship money for League of Legends, Hearthstone, Rocket League, and Overwatch players.
How does one garner enough attention to earn a scholarship? The recruiting process is not all that different from football, basketball, or other sports. Coaches watch film of players who submit highlights of their best performances from Twitch and other streaming services. If they like what they see, they might invite a player for a campus visit and tryout. Since the chances of injury are low compared to contact sports, recruits can participate in practice sessions to see how well they interact and integrate with the team. Impress enough prospective coaches and teammates, and those recruits could earn themselves a scholarship offer.
“For scholastic and collegiate esports, I expect to see more active and vocal parents when it comes to high school to college esports recruitment pipelines,” Kaitlin Teniente, esports coach at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, told Digital Trends. “As for growth, I think we’ll see more LAN events on college campuses, more universities investing in their own esports programs, and a consolidation of the college esports leagues.”
With competitive leagues for children and high-schoolers, the college esports pipeline is growing fast, with over 60,000 high-schoolers in the U.S. and Canada enrolled in a league.
Football and basketball, the major revenue-generating sports for many colleges and universities, had decades of play before becoming big moneymakers. That time helped establish the traditions and made them integral parts of campus life, turning them into the cash cows they are. College esports is coming up in the digital age, a time when monetization is one of the first considerations.
That can be an advantage and a disadvantage. Esports isn’t well-established on most campuses, with alumni making annual pilgrimages to the stadium as a rite of passage. But schools do have the opportunity to invest resources into what college esports might become.
As with football and basketball, the best college esports players have the opportunity to earn lucrative pro contracts. Those who are going pro in something other than esports still can contribute to campus life and the prestige of the university and have one of those unique college experiences many former athletes look back on fondly. College esports players might be better set for success, too.
“Wouldn’t it be something to find out that esports players are more successful academically than football players or basketball players? Why? Well, you train their mind now, not just their physical attributes,” Oral Roberts University vice president for technology and innovation Mike Mathews told BOSS.
ORU has an esports stadium as one of the showcases of its smart campus and plans to welcome 15,000 people for an event this December.
“Video games have become much more than a hobby,” ORU President William M. Wilson said at the E-Rena ribbon-cutting. “With the growth of esports, this is now a multibillion-dollar industry, attracting millions of fans and viewers. At universities all over America, esports is becoming as competitive as football and basketball. We are thrilled to offer ORU students a world-class venue for this international sport.”
College esports might never top college football and basketball in popularity or surpass them both in a matter of decades, with future tailgaters rallying from across the state to watch students at their alma mater play video games. Times have changed. Kids love it, schools love it, and sponsors love it. So never say never.