Video gaming is well past the basement-playing-only days. And by “past,” we mean way, way, way past. Today, video gaming happens on massive stages, jumbotrons, and online platforms viewed by millions. It has professional leagues upon leagues, championships upon championships, and a population of gamers numbering well over 2 billion. It’s been renamed “esports” and has become the fastest-growing sport worldwide—and one with continuously growing recognition outside the gaming world as a vital sport, too. A key to that growing recognition is the development and growth of varsity esports at the collegiate level.

The Development of Varsity Esports
In recent years, colleges and universities across the United States have started building—and building up—eSports teams. Considering how exponentially the eSports industry outside of collegiate sports has grown, as well as how much it’s expected to keep growing, it’s no wonder schools want to get into the mix and reap some of the benefits. And some have already been headfirst in-the-mix for years, spending millions on building renovations and new eSports-specific arenas, IT upgrades, material purchases, and operating costs. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, the University of Akron announced in 2018 that it would start phasing out less popular degree programs in order to save and reallocate that money to invest in their school’s eSports teams. That’s no small thing. The school planned to spend upwards of $1.2 million on renovations, athlete sponsorships, and operating costs. The same year, Boise State University, Missouri’s Columbia College, and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology also all pledged millions to build eSports arenas on their campuses. Because the eSports scene has grown so immensely, colleges see their investment in the sport as an investment in attracting more students to their schools.

All in, the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) now has 175 college and university member institutions offering full eSports programs recognized as varsity-level athletics and over $16 million in eSports scholarships and aid. Tespa, the eSports student and club network, has nearly 300 chapters in schools across the country, which frequently compete against NACE league teams. In fact, Tespa’s competitions boast incredible numbers, bringing more than 1,350 schools and 40,000 students. And just this spring, we saw the launch of a brand new collegiate eSports organization, the Unified Collegiate Esports Association (UCEA), stemming out of the professional-level Unified Esports Association. The UCEA is starting off with 10 advisory school members and has already announced a full roster of tournaments for the fall, including for Rocket League, CS:GO, Overwatch, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and Valorant.

You can find an entire list of active collegiate eSports programs put together by Next College Student Athlete here.

Opportunities for non-traditional athletes
But the growth of varsity eSports is not just about the financial rewards for the colleges. It’s also about the opportunities it affords for student-athletes who are not involved in traditional sports. Exceptional athletic ability in sports like football, hockey, baseball, etc. has long provided the basis for huge financial scholarships for students from all over and all backgrounds. For some of those students, sports scholarships are their ticket to getting a college degree when they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it—or for getting a degree from an institution that would otherwise be out of their range. Now with eSports scholarships, students with non-traditional athletic strengths and skills are able to get the same benefit. Between 2016 and 2018 alone, the number of colleges giving athletic scholarships to eSports athletes jumped from six to more than 70, and now—as we stated above—the total dollar amount NACE reports for scholarships has reached $16 million. That’s a lot of money—and a lot of degree opportunities created.

Opportunities for generations
Varsity eSports rise, as gaming fans and diehards will tell you, is also about continuing to foster the development of the sport and the young talent within it so that it continues for generations—and trust us, it will continue for generations. Here’s way to look at it: The surging proliferation of collegiate varsity eSports leagues mimics the organizational structure of “traditional” sports. For instance, in basketball you have the NBA at the professional level and the NCAA at the collegiate level (the NCAA does, of course, cover more sports than just basketball). The two are, or have, organizations for the same sport, but they serve different purposes and some different audiences, and both help keep the sport alive and the enthusiasm strong. So now in eSports you have Riot’s League Championship Series at the professional level and their University League of Legends series at the collegiate level. Both are functions of the same eSports subset/game—League of Legends—but they serve different athletes, different age groups, and different overarching purposes, with the exception that the existence of both provides more opportunities for continued engagement and excitement for the game and eSports on the whole.

Opportunities for better representation

Among the growing list benefits is also the chance to bring in more industry talent from all student populations, specifically young Black students—something that Twitch has pledged to support. In July, the gaming platform and company announced that it would be partnering with the nonprofit Cxmmunity to create an eSports league specifically for students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). As an organization, Cxmmunity focuses on increasing the participation of minorities in eSports and the video gaming industry. The idea behind the partnership with Twitch—which will both help HBCUs expand their eSports programs and provide scholarships and educational support to student gamers in those programs—is that by growing and developing the pool of young Black talent in eSports and gaming through varsity programs, more people of color will get jobs in the industry post-graduation and the overall level of POC representation in the industry will increase, too.

The pandemic push
While nearly all other collegiate sports (and sports in general) have had to figure out ways to practice and play safely amidst the pandemic, and more still have simply canceled their seasons, eSports has done the opposite. By virtue of being able to conduct the entire sport and all its leagues and competitions online if needed, esports is not canceled, and in fact varsity teams are seeing other athletes and colleges refocus their attention on gaming and the opportunities it presents for continued involvement in a Covid and post-Covid world. Even The Big 12, an NCAA Division I conference, has shifted some gears in hosting its first eSports tournament in July featuring Madden NFL 20. But the caveat with these online tournaments is that they still bring in less revenue and, of course, no foot traffic. If you’re a school like UC Irvine with a barely-used 3,500-square-foot eSports arena, that revenue loss and the inability to show off the facilities and attract more buzz for the program are certainly downsides. Still, while eSports won’t be able to make up all the revenue colleges get from sports like football and basketball this year, being one of the only athletic programs that can do any form of competing during the pandemic school year, it will be able to garner some amount to offset the other losses.