In early 2020, with the closure of college campuses across the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic, college esports remained buzzing. Unlike traditional physical sports, college esports have no travel requirements and minimal risk of infection.
âAlmost everything has continued the same way,â said Theresa Gaffney, head athletic coach at Messiah University. “We have just moved to a virtual presence.”
While traditional athletic fields lay fallow, many schools have been successful in keeping their esports programs alive, a contrast that Gaffney says brought attention to college esports and helped keep the spirit alive. from school. âYour school still looks like a school if you have something to watch and encourage,â she said.
But the college esports space is not as streamlined as traditional college sports, which are administered by the all-powerful and comprehensive NCAA. Collegiate esports has a wide range of stakeholders including schools, competing leagues, and the game developers themselves, each with their own goals and motivations.
Here’s a look at the current state – and the potential future – of college esports.
- Schools. College esports wouldn’t exist at all without a critical mass of colleges and universities interested in competitive gaming. After Robert Morris University announcement the nation’s premier college esports program in late 2014, other schools quickly followed suit, and partial and full scholarships are now prevalent in U.S. college esports. While some mainstream sports powerhouses such as Clemson and the University of Alabama have strong esports programs, esports is also a way for small schools, such as Maryville University in Missouri, to get their hands dirty. a name. âThere’s really no correlationâ when it comes to traditional sports and esports, said Rick Barakat, vice president of media and partnerships at Learfield, who heads the collegiate esports league LevelNext.
- The leagues. A number of companies have sprung up to administer collegiate esports leagues, each with its own flavor. LevelNext focuses on games adjacent to sports, such as Madden NFL and Rocket League; PlayVS, which also runs the high school leagues, allows competition in Madden, FIFA, Overwatch, and SMITE. Collegiate Starleague is one of the few leagues to host tournaments in more bloody first-person shooter games such as Counter-Strike and Call of Duty. Aakash Ranavat, Operations Manager at PlayVS, sees the company less as a tournament organizer and more as an executive to help schools get involved in esports. âWe have built the most robust platform to be able to basically run esports seasons and competitions on the different IP addresses on our platform,â said Ranavat. “And we did it with schools in mind – you know, host schools, allowing schools to basically define their rosters.”
- Game development companies. Unlike traditional sports, esports titles like League of Legends and Overwatch are commodities for sale, and a bustling college esports industry is fantastic marketing. All of the major college esports leagues work in conjunction with corporate game developers such as EA, Riot Games, and Activision Blizzard to help promote and administer their competitions. Riot Games has even formed its own governing body specifically for League of Legends: the Riot Scholastic Association of America (RSAA). According to RSAA director Matt Nausha, the organization has handed out over $ 4 million in scholarships to players since 2014, with the college scene acting as a sort of minor league for professional League of Legends. Some college players have reached the Academy level of organized competition, the second highest level in competitive league. âIt’s just a by-product of the fact that we’re creating more opportunities for these players to hone their skills, really,â said Nausha. âAnd if they have the opportunity to grow in our professional ecosystem, we would love to see it too. “
- The governing bodies. In 2019, the NCAA Board of Governors voted against get involved in esport at an organizational level, citing concerns about the male dominated nature of esports and the extreme violence of some titles. This left the door open for esports-specific governing bodies, such as the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), founded in 2016, to grow. Gaffney believes that paying NACE dues helps legitimize college esports in the eyes of skeptical or inexperienced college administrators. âThere’s a validation in saying, ‘hey, my program will be a member of NACE,’ Gaffney said. Other governing bodies of the collegiate esports space include the Electronic Gaming Federation, the American Collegiate Esports League and the RSAA, owned by Riot-Games.
Growing pains and potential futures
As professional gaming becomes a viable career, more and more students are considering schools’ esports programs when applying to college, and NACE counts. more than 170 schools among its ranks. âIt actually attracts students,â Gaffney said, âso I think it’s strong enough for the colleges to continue. “
But that doesn’t mean all popular esports are ready to make a splash in the college space. While Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is one of the most prominent e-sports, few college leagues host Counter-Strike events. âWe would probably never do a red blood shooting title,â Barakat said. âMaybe some blue blood titles like a Fortnite or an Overwatch can make sense – they’re more animated – but without naming any names, I don’t see us facing off against the first-person shooter titles that are violent. , with red blood. “
Recently, the Valorant marksman title has seen some success in collegiate competitions. Riot Games shooter builds on Overwatch’s more enjoyable combat, with magical weapons that stay away from the realistic guns and violence of games like Call of Duty. âWe see a lot of voices in the school space, both on the middle and high school front, asking for Valorant,â Nausha said. âSo we’re actively looking at that. “
One of the reasons schools may have expressed skepticism about setting up teams in shooting titles is the aforementioned NCAA concerns about violent content. But with first-person shooters like Overwatch now a standard feature of college esports programs – and the number of female competitors on the rise – now seems more than ever time for the NCAA to make its presence known in esports.
It could cause friction between governing bodies that already exist in space, but Nausha is confident her organization will be able to work in tandem with the NCAA, if and when it digs its toes into esports. “If they were to come back someday, they know they have to work with the publishers, because of the intellectual property – it’s not traditional sports, it’s not a face-to-face face-to-face,” he said. declared Nausha. âWe would be absolutely interested in a collaborative working relationship with them, and this is currently the case for other members of the ecosystem. “
Regardless of how the varsity esports landscape takes shape, each of the 10 organizations, schools, and governing bodies that Digiday contacted for this recap were convinced that competitive play would become – or already was – a central part of the game. university experience. Rising interest in the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated an expansion already underway. âBy hook or by crook, esports has proven to be a worthy presence on these campuses,â Gaffney said. âThe students will be happy to play and give of their time, just like we did 10 years ago. This passion is still there.