A Few Brief Thoughts on eSports and Universities

I am, Lord help me, thinking about eSports. This isn’t a thing I do that often, nor is it something I particularly relish, but it is nonetheless something I am doing now. I’m not a particularly competitive gamer myself, I fall into those ‘explorer’ and ‘achiever’ player types (if you want to use Bartle’s taxonomy), and the idea of large scale competition and prizes and such tend to just make me want to shut down and disengage, to say nothing of some of the toxicity and negative social experiences that some (but not all) of the communities engaged in these activities can display. But the other day, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece about University of Akron and how they were discontinuing a bunch of academic programs but investing a ton of money into new facilities for eSports at the same time, which led, as you might expect, to a rather lengthy and somewhat spirited discussion in the comments section in which a couple of things became increasingly clear: One, a lot of people don’t really understand eSports. Two, a lot of people don’t want to understand eSports. And three, as an institution writ large, the Academy is making some astoundingly stupid assumptions about eSports and what they are or aren’t good for, in ways that will probably come back to haunt us all. More locally to my particular scene, I observed a thread with a couple of colleagues in which they were debating the relative merits of eSports on campus and one of them remarked something to the effect of “well, what are eSports good for?” And this then led me to thinking on that very question — what, if anything — are eSports “good” for, and why was there such a viscerally negative reaction on the part of the audience to the Chronicle piece? And what, if anything, should we be doing differently, if we should be doing anything at all?

Interesting Potentialities (aka The Good)

First, here’s a couple of ways that eSports might be a very good thing, which boil down first and foremost to the fact that it’s a public spectacle of game play. This has some ramifications in that it finally identifies and codifies certain player communities in ways that are easily recognizable. eSports allow players to find and play with each other as individuals and as teams in repeatable patterns, not randomly. They allow for those of us that study games to explore defined player populations at various pre-determined or pre-evaluated skill levels. They allow developers to target particular demographics and capabilities in much different ways. And they surface for the general population the notion of games as competitive, but social, activity — the idea that there is in fact a community of people engaged with this “games thing” not a bunch of random lone wolves as the stereotype somehow continues to convey. So there is probably some value in simply surfacing as an identifiable ‘set’ of the players and communities engaged and involved in these games. That’s obvious low-hanging fruit and probably not particularly interesting to folks outside of games research or development.

What is more interesting is the degree to which everyone seems to want to focus on the ‘e’ and not the ‘sport’. And in that same vein the degree to which academics, and in particular perhaps segments of games academics, have a kind of cultural dissonance (disdain?) with sports as an institution. And so a first question, instead of ‘what are eSports good for?’ would be ‘what are sports good for?’ If one has a predisposition that sports in general are a financial drain and distraction from the purpose of a university, then it is unlikely that adding an ‘e’ will radically shift these ideals and beliefs. But let’s instead assume that regular, ‘real,’ sports have a purpose, that the mind-body pairing of academics and athletics holds some actual merit despite the coopting of the term ‘student athlete’ for financial and other reasons by the NCAA. What are some of the values we ascribe to sports in general, and how do eSports examine these themes?

As a parent, sports are often looked at as a way to instill a sense of practice and skill-building, teamwork, competition, socialization, leadership, and ethics. None of those are exactly physical, per se, and they are each of them as prevalent or not in eSports as in any other sport — eSports teams practice together, travel together, require that members negotiate tasks and strategies, compete with others fiercely but display good sportsmanship and agree to abide by sets of rules and procedures, explore the duality of competitors and colleagues, etc. There can exist both camaraderie and shared purpose, strife, politics, progression, success, failure, and more in these activities, as in any sport. In that sense, there is very little to the argument of whether or not one ‘sweats’ for sport to have value — archery, curling, racing, etc. have elements of dexterity and aim, nuance and reaction similar in many respects to electronic games, to say nothing of strategy, complexity, and skill. More critical to my mind as a campus activity, then, is the intended engagement with students, the effect on their growth and development, the impact on their collegiate experience and continued transition from high school to post-collegiate life. What do eSports teach them? What effect does their engagement have on their development? On their personality? On their worldview? In that frame, a structured and thoughtful engagement with eSports could have profound effect, just as sports form a cornerstone for numerous student athletes at a number of colleges and universities. For every large D1 program with star-studded programs, coaches who make more than the president, and scholarships and deals and trades and scandals and more, there are thousands of D3, D4, community college and non-varsity teams and university clubs that aspire to nothing more than a place to play and compete for the enjoyment, engagement, and continued development of their teams and members thereof.

The Ways In Which We Typically Screw Up (aka The Bad)

This of course is at the core of the eSports debate, which has little to do with sport and a lot to do with financial models and the tensions between academics and administration: colleges and universities are not, in large measure, focusing on the social form of these activities as they relate to student life and their holistic integration into campus experience. They are instead, to be blunt, looking to make a short-term cash grab. Need to replace computer labs but don’t have funding? Get an eSports sponsor! Rack and stack more high-tuition paying students? Lure students with scholarships for a thing they think they love? Use the activities of a few students with accrued fame in a completely different setting to try and translate that to marketing reach and reputation gain for the university amongst a population increasingly uninterested in science and discovery? Offset costs for other things through product placement? Try to monetize a student body that has dwindling interest in traditional sports and/or are on a campus not engrained with more traditional spectator practices? eSports to the rescue! Advertising dollars and corporate sponsorships await! And once it starts, then everyone has to keep up with the Jonses eLeague, with facilities, travel budgets, scholarships and custom jerseys to match.

In this sense, the article about Akron in the Chronicle is both a hatchet job and completely justified in the same breath. It pits what are potentially unrelated actions (i.e. program discontinuance in the face of enrollment concerns and establishment of an eSports facility) against one another because it assumes a zero-sum financial model, and a level of planning and foresight I’m not convinced exist. Universities are, as a cultural institution, in a time of crisis: Moody’s is predicting closures at an increased (and increasing) rate, the role and purpose of a degree is being challenged within society by both employers and technological displacement, and anti-intellectualism runs rampant at this moment in American discourse. The student debt bubble continues to swell, the financial model is an ever condensing black hole as tenure track faculty are replaced with contingent labor while administration swells, and funding for, and even the role of, research and development is an exponentially expanding litany of ‘do more with less’. eSports will not ‘save’ a university, nor will they ‘break’ the institution: if the institution is in peril, it is for other, much larger reasons. If it is to be saved, it will be saved by focusing on a commitment to students, to education, and to the continued betterment of humans as a species and the role of seeking knowledge in that quest.

The Akron piece ascribes no motivation to the eSports facility being established. Perhaps it is a research focused, student centered facility with aspirational goals of broad community impact and engagement, such as the work being done at Irvine that explores the intersection of eSports communities and high school curriculum, teams and education, youth and culture. Or perhaps it is a cash grab, an attempt to fill seats in a mad dash to right a sinking ship. The very fact the discourse is one of finances, not of intent and purpose, is telling. (It’s also telling that universities are trending more female, and more diverse, while professional eSports fans are incredibly concentrated as male, and within the US are dominantly white-male by a large margin. As a recruitment and retention growth strategy, if it is intended to offset market forces, it is incredibly ill-informed…)

Some Thoughts On The Future (aka The Ugly)

This all says something profound about the university, and none of it particularly flattering. I’ve watched the growth and development of eSports presence at multiple institutions, and there are a couple of flavors:

In some situations, a university will engage eSports through their athletics department, either as a varsity or intramural activity. In a lot of ways, this is probably where such things should live if it is to be taken seriously as a competitive sport — but this also causes a fracture and disjoint from academics proper. Schools that have both a games design/development/studies program and an eSports presence are navigating a tricky divide because unlike more traditional sports the rhetoric, discourse, and decision making, things are confused in this space because administrations and boards don’t know or understand the difference. The word ‘game’ is a loaded term: unserious, unacademic, and unscrupulous, but it also means money. The politics between academics and organized athletics has been a dangerous space for a very long time: there is nothing particularly new here other than the particulars of the battlefield. But when money is involved, the lines get blurry and the potential for real harm is substantial.

At other schools, eSports has become a domain of student affairs. Games clubs and activity centers have existed for a very long while, and some universities have tried to scale this to eSports activities in addition to less competitive pursuits, both as a way to offset costs and also just to engage students generally in campus life. I’ve seen efforts that are both hit and miss: sometimes competitive activities have a way of displacing other activities — casual clubs and organizations replaced with ‘teams’ and ‘squads’ — but other places have taken a very clear and organized approach that asks students to explore their own motivations towards leisure and competition, which is likely healthy.

And lastly there are those places that can’t seem to differentiate between academics and sports in an organizational context and wind up trying to conflate eSports and an academic program, and these are troublesome for all the reasons you’d expect: the motivations of students to compete in a sport and to study game development are not necessarily conjoined in any real way. They probably both share a love of games and appreciation of the medium — but beyond that there may or may not be any discernable connection. Interestingly a lot of developers I know are actually, demonstrably, not “good” at games, even the games they make. I would include myself in that category — as I opened this piece I noted my predilection for exploration and achievement: in competitive games I don’t react fast enough, I don’t optimize quickly enough, I tend to get sniped early and often. There are people that exist that will read that and think I have no business teaching games, and while I find that humorous, attempting to marry the motivations of an academic department and a sports activity will take that dissonance and interject it as a form of disruption into the core educational experience of a student which we should all regard as deeply problematic.

These themes and the underlying disdain that universities have for eSports can be seen no more clearly than the way in which these efforts are currently established. Usually there is a staff member — sometimes a non-TT faculty, but rarely a tenured or TT faculty member because of research demands — who is passionate about the topic and legitimately wants to do ‘good things’. Said staff member (or non TT faculty member) is then saddled with doing something to ‘make eSports happen’ in addition to whatever their responsibilities were previously, often causing strife and resentment with home units or within some ‘grace period’ which is essentially putting the effort on trial relative to short term financial gain. Eventually this might scale to having a staff of ‘coaches’ and ‘advisors’, but, again, time will tell. It’s easy to view such efforts as a ‘maturation process’ and a ‘coming of age’ narrative. But if we were serious about the learning objectives, the role of these activities on student growth and development, and their utility as more than a potentially lucrative but short-term market for siphoning industry dollars into academia, wouldn’t we be asking the real questions and having the real discussions? Wouldn’t we be establishing these things as a strategic item with real searches for staff, real criteria for hiring, real goals for educational and outreach efforts, real review of what's happening and why? Examining something about those facets about sport and how they have translated in this age where kids are essentially forbidden from neighborhood travel and independent social gathering might be important…

It’s probably easier, I grant you, to sit around and throw stones about the classical definitions of what constitutes a sport, and let the CFO and the budget committee figure out what else to cut until there is nothing left. Kids these days. And this is, at least on paper, a particularly American issue as most of the relationship between sports and academics is decidedly more mature and less culturally violent everywhere else than it is here. But I am left with the question, regardless of locale, of what happens to these investments in infrastructure without interest and engagement in knowledge and culture? What becomes of the Overwatch stadium when Overwatch has run its course? Of the League of Legends quad when LoL is a quant second or third entry in the slang dictionary of yesteryear?

Ultimately if we are really about the pursuit of knowledge, and this thing is happening in our midst, then ‘what is it good for’ is, to me, a research question of critical import. Universities have the ability en masse to enact change and to speak with clout — not as individual entities clamoring for corporate handouts but as a field defending and fighting for the well-being of our students and their continued growth and protection, for inclusion and engagement of women and minorities beyond immediate commercial trends (including the inevitable Title IX issues that will arise if eSports continue down their current pathway), and for the critical study and research into the cultural and commercial influence that have impact on our communities. Universities have the potential to lead by example, rather than cower to market service. And when I think about what could happen there and what eSports are ‘good for,’ I’ve a hunch its good for the same things that sport has always been good for, if only we would treat it that way.

Respectfully submitted,

-A