Competitive gaming -- electronic sports played on computers and consoles -- is a huge and growing interest among Americans. In fact, in the U.S. as of 2018, two-thirds of people over the age of 13 are gamers, according to Nielsen.
In general, higher education hasn’t kept up by providing opportunities to match that interest. But a growing number of institutions are recruiting, coaching, and supporting varsity-level competitive gaming teams.
In fact, the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE)*, a nonprofit membership association, was formed in July 2016 to address that need. The only governing body in college and university esports, NACE works on establishing guidelines around eligibility, competition, scholarships and more -- and it’s transforming traditional athletic departments and student services around the country.
Is gaming a sport?
The question, at this point, is moot, says NACE Executive Director Michael Brooks.
“Whether we call it a ‘sport’ or an ‘activity’ doesn’t matter,” Brooks said. “Interest in esports is rapidly accelerating and the biggest interest category among males and females ages 10-20 in the U.S., while the fan base of existing athletic programs is aging and not being replaced by younger generations. Like cheer and dance, some people may argue that it’s not competitive athletics -- but it’s another co-educational opportunity that students are interested in, and it’s here to stay.”
The interest in video gaming, of course, is not limited to college students. Venture capital, media companies, corporate sponsors, and professional teams are becoming more common, and there is a wide fan base of viewers who enjoy watching others compete.
Primer for n00bs: Platforms, games, and spectators
In gaming, you could consider the platform (or the way the game is delivered) the playing field, and the game the sport. At the collegiate level, esports arenas are typically PCs (as opposed to consoles) played in a “souped-up computer lab,” where gamers both practice and compete, Brooks said.
“At the collegiate level most esport arenas typically have 30-60 gaming PCs, with gaming cosmetics on the walls and computers, gaming keyboards, headsets, mice, mousepads, desks, chairs, all LED lights, and cool logos,” Brooks said.
Because competitions are held in labs typically not built with spectator seating and display screens, fans often watch through niche websites such as Twitch and YouTube Gaming.
“This is the first form of competition that doesn’t occur in the physical space; it’s all online,” Brooks said. “In a traditional athletic department’s budget, the top expenses are salaries and travel. So you can negate travel but not impact student participation. In that way, esports is much more affordable than traditional athletics.”
Some of the most popular games at the collegiate level are League of Legends, Overwatch, Hearthstone, Paladins, Smite, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. More games, as well as console-based competition, open up at the professional level.
Pwning traditional sports
According to Brooks, an esports program appeals to an untapped swatch of promising students, gets faculty and others engaged in admissions, and connects with an alumni population previously disinterested in being athletic boosters. (For example, one NACE member institution hosted an international gaming competition to recruit scholarship students to attend and play for their school.)
Unlike traditional athletics, esports programs don’t only reside under the athletic department -- dramatically changing who is interested in the admissions process. About 40 percent of esports programs are housed under the athletics department, but close to 50 percent reside under student affairs (or wherever the recreational arm of the university resides), according to Brooks.
“So it’s a major disruption of the typical athletic model,” Brooks said. “Departments on campus are recruiting students for intercollegiate competitive programs, and professors and recreation officers are engaged in the admissions process now, just like coaches and athletic directors are.”
Sandbox varsity gaming on your campus
“If you don’t have an esports program, you don’t have the interest of the next generation of students looking at college,” Brooks said. “In the next five years we expect most colleges and universities to have an esports program on campus.
Interested in learning more about esports? Brooks encourages you to contact NACE with questions.
*As of August 2018, NACE has over 80 member institutions, representing over 90 percent of all college esports programs in the U.S. Member institutions serve more than 1500 esports students (expected to double this academic year), with more than $9 million in esports scholarship and aid.