In 2016, eSports was barely a blip on higher education’s screen. Only seven universities had varsity eSports teams. Parents and faculty mostly had a negative view of competitive gaming as a time-wasting hobby—and few could understand why some universities and colleges were investing in the so-called “sport.” Fast forward to today, and the picture is vastly different.
Nearly 200 U.S. colleges are offering around $15 million per year in scholarships for the eSports elite, there are more than 475 eSports clubs on college campuses, and the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) boasts more than 3,000 student athletes and 130 member schools with varsity eSports teams—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Tespa, a network of college gaming clubs, supports over 270 student chapters with more than 102,000 members/alumni across North America. The American Collegiate eSports League (ACEL) adopted a conference system for eSports that mirrors traditional college athletics. Even established collegiate athletic organizations are getting in the game. Last fall, the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) announced formal sponsorship of intercollegiate eSports competitions, and the NCAA recently considered overseeing and holding eSports championships but has tabled the idea for now.
The rapid spread across college campuses is also spurring higher education to invest heavily in infrastructure to sustain eSports by building state-of-the-art training facilities and gaming arenas. The University of Akron, for example, is investing $750,000 into three eSports facilities with a combined 5,200 square feet of dedicated eSports space—the largest amount of any university in the world to date. The facilities will include 90 state-of-the-art gaming PCs and 30 next-generation consoles.
These are big changes in just three short years—so what gives?
eSports Evolution: From Fad to Bonafide Industry
For students, who have grown up playing video games like Overwatch and Fortnite, eSports brings together two of their biggest interests: technology and social interaction—so it’s no wonder the sport is extremely popular. However, the recent shift in parents’ and colleges’ perception of eSports is more likely explained by competitive gaming’s evolution from fad to a bonafide industry—one that is projected to be worth $1.8 billion by 2022 according to estimates from NewZoo.
As a booming industry, there’s an opportunity not only for students to compete in eSports, but to go into any number of professions—from technology to business—that support the industry. At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for example, they’ve already developed a course that teaches students to think about what a sustainable and viable eSports business looks like.
However, the three biggest reasons universities are beginning to offer scholarships and pour money into building eSports facilities are revenue, recruitment, and recognition. Here’s a look at why these benefits make a high dollar investment in the sport worthwhile:
By 2022, Goldman Sachs estimates that the eSports industry will have 300 million viewers, on par with the NFL. Given that a successful college football program can generate more than $100 million in annual revenue, higher education is betting that the growing popularity of eSports means it can offer a similar (or greater) return on investment.
By building eSports stadiums, which stream eSports competitions on big screens for spectator viewing, universities can monetize eSports just like they have football through multiple streams of revenue: ticket sales, merchandise, and lucrative TV deals. This year, the Big Ten Conference, which includes 14 Division-1 colleges, agreed to a two-year deal with Riot Games to sustain a League of Legends league. As part of the deal, the Big Ten Network (BTN) remains the primary broadcaster of the league’s events.
Another key reason many universities, especially small private ones, have embraced eSports is its positive impact on recruitment. As colleges compete for quality students with high academic potential, eSports has proved to be a differentiator. This is especially true when it comes to recruiting students interested in STEM fields, which are often hard to recruit, but highly desired.
According to a new study, girls who play video games are three times more likely to study STEM degrees. Given the lack of gender diversity usually found in STEM fields, the ability to increase female STEM student recruitment has enormous appeal for many colleges and universities. Having an eSports program and offering scholarships can make the difference about where these talented women choose to enroll.
Recognition is vital for any university—especially when it comes to extracurricular activities like sports. Students often select a college based on reputation, with athletics being a primary driver of a university’s reputation. For colleges with successful sports teams, studies have shown that athletic recognition has given them the ability to increase the quality of applications, increase enrollment numbers, or increase tuition.
As a new sport, competitive gaming offers a fresh opportunity for colleges, especially small, private colleges, to gain recognition in a not-yet highly competitive field. For example, the 2,000-student Maryville University in Missouri doesn’t have the resources to compete with Texas A&M for a top-notch football program, but it has been able to compete against other universities with its budding eSports program. In fact, after having won three League of Legends college tournaments in the past four years and competing internationally, Maryville University now has worldwide recognition for its eSports program, helping it to continue to recruit top eSports and academic talent.
Time to Get in the Game
eSports is here to stay—and is at a tipping point. A few universities, like the University of Akron, Boise State, and Harrisburg University—already recognize the positive impact of eSports and are a step ahead of most by building campus arenas specifically for eSports. For those who aren’t yet investing, it’s not too late. But remember, the adage of the early bird gets the worm—those universities that invest now in eSports infrastructure and programs will also be the first to reap the biggest returns on their investment.