The idea a college would bestow a scholarship worth thousands of dollars to a student to play video games might, at one point, have been written off as a Mountain Dew and Dorito-fueled pipe dream.
Not so in 2020, when competitive online gaming, known as esports, is expected to be worth around $1.4 billion globally and has made significant inroads into higher education in a short period. The National Association of Collegiate eSports, which has begun resembling the industry's counterpart to the NCAA, started with six member institutions in 2016 and has since blossomed to more than 170, its founder and executive director Michael Brooks said.
Institutions nationwide have begun to invest heavily in esports, creating club- and varsity-level teams to battle other schools, constructing their own arenas complete with gaming computers and equipment, and even adding academic courses designed to teach students how to manage professional programs. Professional esports have also exploded, with worldwide tournaments and top gamers locking down lucrative sponsorship deals.
Esports also haven't suffered to the same extent as other aspects of higher ed in the COVID-19 era.
Institutions are seeking alternatives to the hallmarks of the college experience as the coronavirus prohibits gatherings like campus concerts and sporting events, Brooks explained. Esports can help fill that gap because students don't need to be in the same room to play together. Universities can stream matches online.
And maintaining or even starting an esports program is a relatively inexpensive endeavor. Most programs only have one or two staffers, so there's not much to scale back in a pandemic, Brooks said.
Plus, the fact that the health crisis only slowed, and not derailed, some institutions' programs, bodes well, Brooks said.
"The rush to start a new program has cooled down a bit," he said. "But we're still getting new member requests."
Collegiate esports grows
Robert Morris University Illinois, a private college that was recently acquired by Chicago's Roosevelt University, is credited with developing the first varsity esports framework. It gave out scholarships, issued uniforms and set a stringent practice schedule akin to conventional athletics.
Many other institutions have since followed in its digital footsteps. The titles colleges pick are often the same, among them League of Legends, Super Smash Bros. and Overwatch.
Esports models differ among institutions, though. Some house teams in their athletic departments while others base them in student affairs, making them similar to a club. Others offer academic courses in areas such as the business of esports or game design. And many have some combination of teams and classes.
Small, private institutions, where "a difference of 15 students can affect the bottom line" tend to leverage esports as an enrollment incentive, said Welch Suggs, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia who has researched esports in higher education. As of January, nearly 80% of institutions in the Council of Independent Colleges, which represents liberal arts schools, belonged to at least one esports association, Suggs' analysis shows.
Historically Black colleges, in particular, have started to stake out esports, partially as a way to link their students with jobs and internships in tech fields. Hampton University, in Virginia, received a $340,658 grant last year from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to create an esports lab and classes.
Esports can help attract applicants who might not normally pursue college, Suggs said. Institutions are anticipating an enrollment cliff in the next several years, and tapping into this demographic could help buoy their numbers, he said. Younger generations connect through video games, he said, and in a decade or so, many of these students will be headed to college.
"We've seen it grow as much as a social activity as (it has) a competitive one," Suggs said of collegiate esports.
Large public colleges have also entered the fray. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has offered an esports class for several years. Ohio State University plans to add a full-blown esports degree, following investment in an 80-seat gaming lab and several competitive teams.
Pandemic pauses some progress
Ohio State's degree, which was due to launch this fall, has been pushed back, said Brandon Smith, the university's esports director. The institution intends to offer three tracks: esports and game creation, management, and gaming application in medicine and health. The delay is unsurprising, given that the university sliced $252 million from its operating budget to account for COVID-19-related revenue losses.
The pandemic also somewhat hampered Ohio State's competitive esports teams, which are still playing but are working through how to best host and stream their games, Smith said.
School officials want to find a way to monitor language and behavior of players and fans on Twitch, a popular broadcasting platform for gamers.
Observers have raised concerns about the potential for online harassment in esports, which profierates in the gaming world. Because men dominate esports, and this type of abuse often targets women, academics have theorized it could trigger violations of Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination on campuses.
Making matches accessible for students with disabilities is also important for Ohio State, Smith said. Games happen in real-time, so the university needs to figure out how to transcribe commentary.
"If we had been able to finish our spring semester on campus, we would have been able to check some of these boxes," he said.
The pandemic hasn't stymied progress at every college, though. Take Shenandoah University, a private college in Virginia, and one of the first institutions to host esports classes and varsity teams.
On the academic side, Shenandoah added an MBA concentration in esports and a certificate this fall, said its esports director, Joey Gawrysiak. Shenandoah’s start up costs were about $120,000 for the varsity teams and $80,000 for the academic programs, he said.
Shenandoah's nearly 50 varsity gamers are competing in-person this fall, though they had to play remotely in the spring. That meant those with inadequate internet connection couldn't participate, Gawrysiak said. The university also invested about $6,000 to $7,000 in a setup that allows students to broadcast games online and provide play-by-play against a Shenandoah-branded backdrop.
"These are skills they can learn that are applicable across industries," Gawrysiak said.
Shenandoah's sports teams aren't playing this fall, and so with the new broadcast system in place, the university replaced its usual homecoming football game with an esports match against a rival's gaming team. Perhaps fittingly, they played Madden NFL, a football video game.
This brought the campus together and generated interest for the esports program, Gawrysiak said.
What's ahead for esports?
Brooks, the association leader, said he predicts college esports to grow even during the pandemic. His group got daily calls last summer from colleges with word of new programs. That's now down to every couple of weeks, but it's still growth, he said.
The NCAA has struggled to find its role, however.
The group's top governing board declined to take a position on esports last year, voting to table the issue of whether it would oversee their championships. The panel's vote was the last decision the NCAA made on esports, spokesperson Stacey Osburn confirmed in an email.
Under NCAA control, esports would also be subject to its amateurism model, which bars student-athletes from profiting from their sports (though the NCAA is likely on its way to changing that). Talented esports players can earn money from sponsorships and streaming their games.
Though income from esports won't make up for money colleges are losing by scaling back or nixing football and men's basketball, it's a revenue source colleges can learn to tap, Brooks said.
"It's just a popular tool," he said. "It speaks to the interests of the next generation, especially now."
This story has been updated with additional details about Shenandoah's esports program.