Thanks to their ballooning worldwide popularity, esports have extended into the collegiate space over the last several years. Schools have started and managed their own teams to compete in tournaments hosted by organizations like CSL Esports and Tespa; the biggest schools are even offering scholarships to prospective players. The amount of money, notoriety, and future professional potential in collegiate esports has garnered more respect for esports as a hobby and as a career path, with many likening it to the path that players of traditional sports take in college.

No matter what level you play at, participating in collegiate esports can be a fun, rewarding experience. I was involved with my school’s esports organization every year I was there; in my senior year, I played on our Heroes of the Storm Tespa team. (Go Sleepless Nights!) There were so many benefits to joining a team: I met friends that I still keep in touch with today, I became infinitely better at a game I enjoyed, and I had an activity to look forward to after long days of class and studying. As awesome as these things are, sometimes it’s difficult to find a balance between participating in esports and keeping up with your schoolwork, particularly if you’re on a scholarship or recruited as a player. We’ve gathered a few tips and strategies to help both aspiring and current collegiate players find a way to keep everything in balance.

Getting Started in Collegiate Esports

If you’re currently a high school student who wants to play at the collegiate level or a college student who’s interested in joining their school’s team, you’ve come to the right place! It’s much easier to find information about collegiate esports programs now than it was even 5 years ago. More and more high schools are starting gaming and esports clubs, as are colleges big and small.

When you’re researching colleges, check out their clubs and sports pages – many schools have websites or social media pages dedicated to their esports teams and clubs. The biggest teams might even have fancy websites and professional photos of their players. (The Rochester Institute of Technology’s esports website is one of those!) Reach out to club presidents, team captains, and admissions officials for more information on what games they have teams for and what the requirements are to join. This sort of research is extremely important: you don’t want to spend all your time getting really good at Overwatch when the school you want to attend only plays League of Legends!

Speaking of games, the old adage practice, practice, practice still holds true here. No matter what game you want to play at the collegiate level, you need to hone your skills as much as you can. Many teams host tryouts or auditions for their teams, particularly if they compete at a very high level. If you’re serious about going college-pro, watch videos, check out streamers’ and pro players’ techniques, and read meta discussions for your preferred game. You want to put your best foot forward if you’re going to try out for a college team.

A note about officially-sanctioned teams – some schools recognize their esports teams as part of their network of official sports teams (football, basketball, etc.) and provide funding. These are the schools that are most likely to give scholarships and grants for play, and their teams are likely better connected and have more on-campus support. Other teams may just be at the club level – my school’s esports organization was really just a student club, so we didn’t receive any official school advertising, scholarships, or funding (Many of the big, traditional SEC schools are like this, unfortunately). That doesn’t mean that you can’t play in a competitive environment or have a lot of fun if you go to one of these schools – it just means that you won’t get official university support for your status as an athlete.

Grades and Play: A Balancing Act

If you’re accepted to a team or esports program, you’ll probably go through a short meeting where the team discusses their practice schedule and expectations for each player. My team was good but not professional-leaning, so we practiced 2 hours a night, 3 nights a week, with the expectation of additional solo play outside of official practices. Teams that routinely place very high or are connected to professional organizations will likely have more stringent practice schedules with longer hours and more days. It’s important to know what your team’s or organization’s style is so that you can arrange your study and play effectively.

If you’re not on scholarship and you’re just interested in playing at a casual or non-professional level, school absolutely comes first. I gave myself a strict homework schedule each week that included breaking down big projects into multiple days of work, writing papers at a relaxed rate, and studying a little bit each day for upcoming tests. I played around with different study methods and habits to find the ones that worked for me. College can be a lot of fun and a great place to have new experiences and meet new people, but at the end of the day, it’s still school. I knew that if I didn’t get my work done by the time I started playing, there was no way I’d be able to tear myself away, so I resolved to do everything beforehand – and it worked.

The author in her hard-won esports jersey, circa 2019. Yes, it does have my gamertag on the back.

If you’re on scholarshipthings get a little murkier. If you were recruited to play a particular game or if your being able to afford school depends on your performance or ability to play, then that ultimately takes precedence over your schoolwork – particularly if you have serious plans to go pro after school. That doesn’t mean that school should be completely disregarded, though. Check to see if your school has tutoring assistance for athletes. Let your professors know what your situation is and ask if any allowances can be made – for example, if you have a big match and a big exam on the same day, see if your professor will let you take it a day or two early. If possible, build your class schedule around your practices so you don’t have several classes on the same day as your longest practices.

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Regardless of what your funding situation is, focus on making esports a fun, rewarding way to spend your time in school. My organization required teams to meet up in-person and do something other than practice at least once a month – I organized a roller-skate night for my Heroes team. Spend time getting to know your teammates and becoming friends with them. Tensions on competitive teams can be high, even if your team isn’t trying to go pro; make an effort to be kind to both the players you play with and those you play against. If you’re in the middle of a losing streak or big disagreement, the friendships you’ve fostered and the experiences you’ve shared as a team can serve as valuable reminders of why you play in the first place.

It’s also important to keep an eye on your own mental health. If you recognize that the collegiate scene is not for you, try dropping down to a casual or less competitive team. If you didn’t make it onto the team you wanted, look for other opportunities to help out – your school’s esports organization might need a treasurer, tournament aid, or community manager. If you’re really struggling and don’t know what to do, don’t be afraid to put down the controller or keyboard for a little bit and take a break. Taking care of yourself should be your biggest priority in college, regardless of whether you participate in esports. If your teammates make fun of you or freeze you out for these things, you might want to look for new teammates.

Like participating in any collegiate sport, playing an esport can be a long, hard slog, or it can be a fun, worthwhile adventure. You can’t always control how your team plays or the attitudes that they bring, but you can control how you respond to the challenges of organized gaming. Responding effectively means taking care of yourself first, including keeping your grades high, practicing effectively, and making mental health a priority. As collegiate esports continue to grow and become more glitzy and glamorous, it’s easy to want to be a part of that world, but there’s a lot of work that has to be done beneath the shiny exterior. If you persist, though, you might just find the premiere community gaming experience of your life.