[image by Danny Perschonok: a shot of the Heroes of the Dorm tournament, 2015]

The Case for Collegiate Esports

Playing video games is a hobby for many, but for a select, dedicated few, the hours put into learning a game can be transformed into a career of skill. Competitive gaming, better known as “esports” (electronic sports), has taken the world by storm, valued by Superdata at $612 million worldwide with 134 million viewers. Prize pools for some tournaments have climbed into the millions, and teams travel between countries on a regular basis to meet and compete in person.

Asian countries, led by China and South Korea, are major proponents of the industry, and Europe has stayed close behind for the longest time. Lately, though, America’s numbers have been catching up with the rest of the world, and America is projected to be the #2 investor in esports, a phenomenon likely stemming from its love of both sponsor-based sports and video games.

Perhaps, then, this means it’s time for our country’s educational institutions to step ahead of the curve and start supporting esports in a formal manner.

Already, some colleges, like Robert Morris University and the University of Pikeville, have offered scholarships to outstanding, well-established gamers. These players often go on to represent the school’s esports teams in a number of leagues.

Will other schools follow suit and support its esports hopefuls?

A Lack of Strats

Most school-bound gamers aren’t so lucky to have a high degree of formal university support. They have to do their own legwork in order to have any form of representation for their game of choice on campus and, in turn their campus in the game’s competitive scene.

Some students simply gather friends and play, while others go all-out and form a club to seek out fellow gamers, get some form of school support, and celebrate the team. They make their own schedule to practice, balancing gaming with class, schoolwork and other parts of their daily campus life.

All of this is to bring out the skill, talent, and practice required from the gamers for many of these games. Games like Dota 2 and League of Legends, which are extremely similar 5-player games comparable to Capture the Flag and King of the Hill, require a mix of long-term strategy and near-instant reaction times, plus excellent team cohesion, much like football or basketball. Starcraft is much the same except, being a single player game closer to chess in strategy, it requires quick thinking and almost inhuman “actions per minute” — that is, how much a single player can accomplish with its in-game characters in a minute’s time. These video games unlock sorts of talent that traditional and older games and sports often keep hidden, and schools have the potential to unlock them.

Fortunately for these gamers, organizations exist already that are enthusiastic about helping these gamers get their groups off the ground. Collegiate Starleague (CSL), which hosts leagues labeled “Divisions” 1 up to 3 for four games (Starcraft II, League of Legends, Dota 2, and as of this year Hearthstone), provides guides and articles about starting esports clubs and teams. They enthusiastically keep in touch with campus leaders to help them establish not only a team, but a community of gamers on these campuses. This particular league also flies out its semifinalists to the West Coast for live LAN games (local area network; essentially, these computers are connected to each other over the same network in the same location).

Similarly, the National Collegiate e-Sports Association (NCESPA) opened up a second division for one of its games (League of Legends) and plans to hold a small “convention” to host both of its represented games’ finals (including Counter-Strike: Global Offensive). Both organizations offer scholarships for the Division 1 champions and runner-ups, as well as a variety of prizes for other Divisions.

Another organization, TeSPA, stepped up and hosted a league for another game, Heroes of the Storm, with major payout: full tutition, up to $75k for each winning player, on a team of five players. The event was covered on ESPN3 and garnered major attention from the esports industry, especially since the game is fairly new.

Still, for the clubs that don’t win any money, support comes mostly if the students choose to register a club and petition for the club funding, as opposed to the universities showing support through further financial and structural means.

Schools should view esports as a low-cost opportunities. For one, full stadiums and fields with locker rooms aren’t required for practices, much less any games, and even hosted games and events require a stage and LAN compatibility at most. Teams don’t need to be shipped across the country, since most collegiate sports now are played online, and tournaments and leagues often pay for the players to attend. Coaches are optional, and fellow students often fill these roles, but club advisors can help the players keep a fair balance between school and esports. And given students provide their own gaming equipment, most of the financial requirements are uniforms, if teams even opt for one, plus possibly some promotional material like fliers.

Players aren’t the only part of esports, and gaming isn’t the only skill needed to help in the field. With a rise in popularity of esports comes a need for people who are willing to help support it in a multitude of ways, in a variety of fields. Those who are familiar with the games they enjoy have opportunities in covering the material through writing, analysis, and casting. Some choose to take on a managerial position and help the team remain coordinated, both among themselves and with the league and other teams. There is “backstage” work to be done, such as design, finances, and public relations. The teams these students make also bring together a community of fellow gamers on campus, adding a bit of spark to campus life.

Even if universities are hesitant to give their full support, for some students, their independent work sometimes becomes worth the effort. Yoon Chang, known under her online handle “Harusol,” represented Cornell, and eventually all American schools, for the virtual card game Hearthstone in CSL and won their international tournament, becoming the first woman to win a major unisex tournament. Kurtis Ling, known as “Aui_2000,” played Starcraft II for CSL as well. Later, he switched to Dota 2 and continued to win a share of a $6-million prize pool this past summer at “The International,” the largest esports tournament in the world. Participating in collegiate leagues may not have been a sole factor of their success, but it provided an opportunity for them to show their talent.

Creating Lanes of Support

Up until they reach a point of mainstream success, unfortunately, many students go on rocky paths in order to pursue their dream of esports. A hot topic in the esports scene is how these players in America lack the support they need in order to practice and become good at what they do — and thus narrow their chances of income through their game. When a player fails in this country, it becomes hard to continue on other paths of life due to high costs of living and a lack of acceptance for esports.

For a student, this can become a much more difficult endeavor. Many pro gamers dropped their education in order to dedicate their time to their esports careers. For some, by getting sponsorships, a fan gathering, and eventually a team, this can be successful; but some others, unsung and downtrodden, had to quit this track. The cost of getting back on an educational track for a more traditional job and/or career in America is high — not only financially, but emotionally and socially as well.

Therefore, in the future of esports, it’s important to build an environment in which gamers are more sure about whether or not they can continue following their dreams.

When a school takes the steps to support its untraditional athletes, it creates a two-way street of opportunities. Of course, the student begins to show they are multifaceted and responsible, building two potential career paths: one based off of traditional skills, and one from their passions. They learn about their potential in esports and are more likely to decide which way they should continue.

Schools that support these students also show they are forward-thinking and ready to claim a stake in a rising field that is highly dynamic and ready for growth. My hope is that when schools come together to bring esports to the next level en masse, and thus bring further acceptance in American culture, they also take advantage of today’s technology to bring students of shared interests, similar career choosings, and school spirit.

In the digital age, digital sports is a new frontier — and schools should be ready to embrace it and lead the way for both gamers and fans.

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