Higher Education and the Growth of Esports

June 28, 2018


During the second week of June, one of the largest esports collegiate championships took place: The League of Legends College Championship. Competing schools included Maryville University, Columbia College, University of Texas – Dallas, Western University, University of Ottawa, University of California – Irvine, University of Illinois, and University of Maryland.

Ultimately, No. 2-ranked UC Irvine triumphed over No. 5 Columbia College (No. 1 Maryville University was upset by No. 8 Illinois earlier in the tournament).

The match topped of a year of tremendous growth for collegiate esports.

Photo Credit: Study Breaks Magazine

“University presidents are asking more and more what they should be doing with video games,” Michael Sherman, the Collegiate Esports Director for Riot Games, said in an interview with Cynopsis Media. “Holistically, they hear about what’s going on and they see all the numbers, but they aren’t sure how those apply to their school. I think that’s because schools are really intrigued by the application across the board where they can engage with a large population of their students. They are also curious because of the academic interest and performance of these students, who are high-performing and taking on really challenging majors. So, you have the strategy starting that is utilizing gamers across the board and we as a publisher are trying to drive that for schools who want to do and learn more.”

In 2014, Robert Morris University was the first institution of higher education to create a varsity esports program. Today, more than 60 colleges and universities have programs recognized by the National Association of Collegiate Esports – and those are just ones sanctioned by the schools. The majority of the remaining colleges and universities have an esports club (there are more than 450 altogether). These are the programs that participate in the annual collegiate competitions being established by the major publishers, like Riot and Blizzard.

“In addition to organizing competitions and running the league, we support student clubs across the US. We see our role as largely facilitating conversations between students and their administrators. We want to create the best experience possible for gamers and if we can, help create a dialogue and connect what’s already happening on campus,” said Sherman.

Interestingly and seemingly despite its growing popularity, the NCAA has not decided if it will play a role in college esports at all. There is a great deal of debate on the topic. At the recent Big 12 Conference’s “State of College Athletics” Forum, a panel discussion was held to address this very topic. Included in the discussion were Bob Bowlsby, the Commissioner of The Big 12 Conference, and Mark Cuban, the Owner of the Dallas Mavericks and Mavs Gaming.

Photo Credit: Complex

“I think it’d be a big mistake to run it (the esports program) in the athletic department,” said Cuban. “It seems really cool, right? ‘Hey, we’re athletes now, we’re part of the athletics program. We do a lot of the same things.’ But, look what happened in basketball. The same thing is going to happen with esports because of all the money. All of a sudden, you’re coming out of high school and you’re on the high school club and you just have an amazing personality and you’ve got 700,000 simultaneous viewers when you run a Twitch and you’ve got 16 million subscribers and all of a sudden you go to college, you’re not going to be able to play with your college team as part of the athletic department. What I would tell you is, the gamers are smarter than the jocks. You can put together a better program that’s (not part of) the NCAA. And it’s not a knock on athletes. It’s a knock on the NCAA. They can’t get out of their own way. If someone showed the NCAA how to make $100 bills for 50 cents, they would screw it up.”

In many ways, the National Association of Collegiate Esports and the competitions (and support) by the publishers are an answer to the NCAA’s inactivity. And that may be all that is needed. College esports seems to be growing on its own without the association’s involvement.

Still, without one main governing body, it is possible that college esports will grow beyond its means and become chaotic – with rules that differ from school to school (including important issues like scholarships and financial aid). Additionally, with high-level esports becoming very lucrative, if college esports programs are a part of the NCAA, more of those funds will be funneled to the college. In the current system, the publishers are the ones benefiting financially.

“This was our biggest year of competition yet,” said Sherman, speaking about the run up to the League of Legends College Championship. “We had over 311 schools participating, up from 285 schools last year. We also had more schools register for our programs this year, as we had 30 at the start of the season, up from 14 last year and already we are hearing about numbers around 70 to 75 who will have programs next year. At the same time, we did our deal with Big Ten Network for two years and also signed with the Peach Belt Conference. Now, our focus is to continue to bring more conferences into the fold and support the way that universities in group and making an investment in esports.”

Photo Credit: Medium

Esports popularity is growing at such a rate that it may soon overtake the popularity of some traditional sports. Which is why colleges and universities are getting involved with esports. Yet, money is not the only reason for institutes of higher learning to form esports programs. Many of the skill acquired by gamers are in line with STEM initiatives. In fact, several schools with organized esports programs are also known for their STEM programs. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is known worldwide for its engineering program –and it also has one of the leading academic voices on esports on staff: Professor of Comparative Media Studies T.L. Taylor. Additionally, the school has sponsored an esports panel at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference for the last seven years.

“I think the common question being asked is where universities should be starting. They are all approaching it differently as you will talk to one school which wants to drive enrollment in their engineering department over the next ten years and doesn’t know where to start. Another school will point to their low engagement rates and ask how they can utilize and reconnect with their students to be more functional. At a base level, a school wants to understand the types of games being played, who is playing them and how they can get support,” said Sherman.

Many studies have found that gaming helps players improve problem solving skills, coordination, memory, and concentration. So, by offering esports scholarships, colleges and universities may actually be bolstering a student’s education.

College esports is going to continue to grow, with or without the NCAA’s involvement. If you are interested in sponsoring a college esports programs or for any other aspect of the esports scene, give eGency Global a call at 972-323-6354.