As esports continues to grow in popularity, the number of colleges and universities with varsity teams also continues to grow. Since 2018, the number of colleges and universities with official varsity esports programs that are members of the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) has risen from 125 to 175—that’s a 40-percent increase in just two years. The esports student and club network Tespa also has seen an incredible rise, now with over 270 esports club chapters at school across the country. And among those programs, there are a few standouts. Below is our list of the top five college esports programs in the U.S.
1. Maryville University
NCAA Division II – Great Lakes Valley Conference, NACE
Located in Town and Country, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis, Maryville University exploded onto the varsity esports scene in 2016, just one year after they created their program, winning their first national title in the 2016 League of Legends championships. They proceeded to achieve a 40-0 win record in 2017, taking home the National Champion title again that year and in 2019. Their LoL prowess isn’t the alone, though, as the university also boasts an Overwatch team ranked among the top four in the nation, not to mention strong club teams in CS:GO, Hearthstone, Rainbow Six Siege, and Rocket League. Maryville was one of the first universities to offer scholarships to esports club students and was one of the founding six members of NACE. With a star-studded coaching team, state-of-the-art esports training facilities, and a track record of incredible support for its programs, the Maryville University program remains at the top of pack.
2. Miami University (OH)
National Collegiate Hockey Conference (Division I), Mid-America Conference (Division I, Football I-A), U.S. Figure Skating Association, NACE
Set in Oxford, Ohio, Miami U is one of the better-known schools on this list for many reasons beyond esports—being a D-1 school with good academics and happening nightlife are among them. But within varsity esports, they’ve earned their place by creating an incredibly successful program and providing scholarships early on, in 2016. It’s no surprise that soon thereafter they found their team taking home the top prize for the 2017 NACE Overwatch season and taking second in that year’s NACE League of Legends invitational. In addition to Overwatch and LoL, Miami’s team also competes in Hearthstone as well as in Tespa’s club leagues. And they train in the school’s on-campus esports arena, complete with 16 gaming stations, top-level equipment, and plenty of TV monitors on which players can watch past and live games. In fact, this year, the school was involved in the creation of a new standalone esports conference, the Mid-American Conference, which will provide the opportunity for “structured competition without extensive rules” that govern other athletics. Beyond the varsity program, the school offers a full esports academic course, a minor in digital gaming, and summer camps for high school gamers to train like varsity collegiate athletes.
University of California – Irvine
Big West Conference (Division I, Football I-A), Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (Division I)
Considering that UC Irvine, out in the beachy OC, established their program back in 2015—becoming the first public university to do so—and that over 70 percent of the student body self-identifies as “gamers,” we’d say the school is a good place for esports athletes to be. They’ve got a very strong team focusing on League of Legends and Overwatch, the players of which they provide scholarships going up to roughly $5,600 and $2,500, respectively. The school has arguably the preeminent esports arena in the country for a varsity program, coming in at 3,500 square feet with over 70 gaming stations and the highest-quality systems. But that’s not all that’s high-quality: Their commitment to diversity and inclusion as a program also stands out, as does the school’s part in the UC system, which boasts strong academics on top of the rest. It’s a D-I school (with D-I) resources, and it’s quickly become the go-to program for driven gamers across the country.
University of Utah
Pacific-12 Conference (Division I, Football 1-A), NCWA Wrestling
As one of the largest universities to offer esports scholarships (around $1,000 per year for recipients) beginning in 2017, the University of Utah definitely makes the list. While the varsity team was a little late on the scene, the school’s had a game development program since 2007, and also in 2017, they established a full undergraduate gaming degree. The team of the self-described “Gamer U” competes in League of Legends, Overwatch, Hearthstone, and Rocket League and enjoys wide support across campus. Utah also led the way as the first school in a Power Five football conference to create a varsity esports team, further raising the profile of esports within the traditional collegiate sports scene.
Boise State University
Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (Division II), Mountain West Conference (Division I, Football I-A), NACE
BSU has one of the newer programs, beginning in only 2017, but it has already made a solid mark on the field, taking the title at the Mountain West Conference for their Rocket League team this year. The school is notable considering that BSU is one of the few Division I schools to have a varsity esports program so far, but also because they’ve made quite a commitment to continue to back and build it, having opened a brand new esports arena in January of this year. They compete in a range of games including Rocket League, Overwatch, League of Legends, Hearthstone, and Heroes of the Storm, and provide ample opportunity for their fan base to participate—whether by watching in the large spectating area of their arena, through their streaming on Twitch, or their professional broadcast. On top of all that, BSU offers scholarships in the vicinity of $1,000-2,000 per year, but they also require everyone on their esports team to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA. Players can’t forget why they’re at school, to begin with!
We’d be remiss not to mention Robert Morris University Illinois. Situated in downtown Chicago, RMU was a prominent force in the varsity esports space for the last several years, in part because it became the first university to offer esports-specific scholarships to students in 2014. The scholarships went to star League of Legends players and covered up to 50 percent of tuition and 50 percent of room and board at the private institution—which, in 2014 at the start of the program, amounted to nearly $19,000. Having expanded their program beyond League of Legends, last year the school’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive varsity team took home third place in the Collegiate Starleague’s 2019 Spring Finals, with their junior varsity team taking first. This year, however, RMU has merged with Roosevelt University, located in the same area of Chicago, and will go under Roosevelt’s name. The schools’ athletics have, of course, merged too, so as the merger’s impacts materialize throughout the school year, we’ll see how the strength of its esports program might be affected.
Does your college or university have a top-notch varsity esports program? We want to hear all about it!