In early 2020, with college campuses shutting down across the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic, collegiate esports remained abuzz with activity. Unlike traditional physical sports, collegiate esports has no travel requirements and minimal risk of infection.
“Most everything still continued the same,” said Theresa Gaffney, head esports coach at Messiah University. “We just moved to a virtual presence.”
As traditional sports fields lay fallow, many schools managed to keep their esports programs alive, a contrast that Gaffney says generated attention for collegiate esports and helped maintain school spirit. “Your school still feels like a school if you have something to watch and cheer for,” she said.
But the collegiate esports space is not as streamlined as traditional college sports, which is administered by the all-powerful and overarching NCAA. Collegiate esports has a wide range of stakeholders, including the schools, competing leagues and the game developers themselves, each of which have their own goals and motivations.
Here’s a look at the current state — and potential future — of collegiate esports.
- The schools. Collegiate esports wouldn’t exist at all without a critical mass of colleges and universities interested in competitive gaming. After Robert Morris University announced the country’s first varsity esports program in late 2014, other schools quickly followed suit, and partial and full scholarships are now widespread in American collegiate esports. Though some traditional-sports powerhouses such as Clemson and the University of Alabama boast strong esports programs, esports is also an avenue for smaller schools, such as Missouri’s Maryville University, to make a name for themselves. “There really isn’t a correlation” when it comes to traditional sports and esports, said Rick Barakat, evp of media and partnerships at Learfield, which runs the collegiate esports league LevelNext.
- The leagues. A number of companies have emerged to administer collegiate esports leagues, each with its own unique flavor. LevelNext focuses on sports-adjacent games, such as Madden NFL and Rocket League; PlayVS, which also administers high school leagues, allows for competition in Madden, FIFA, Overwatch and SMITE. Collegiate Starleague is one of the few leagues to run tournaments in bloodier first-person shooters such as Counter-Strike and Call of Duty. Aakash Ranavat, svp of operations at PlayVS, views the company as less of a tournament organizer and more of a framework to help schools get involved in esports. “We built the most robust platform to be able to essentially run esports seasons and competitions across the various IPs on our platform,” Ranavat said. “And we’ve done that with schools in mind — you know, onboarding schools, allowing schools to essentially set their rosters.”
- The game development firms. Unlike traditional sports, esports titles such as League of Legends and Overwatch are products for sale, and a bustling collegiate esports industry is fantastic marketing. All of the large collegiate esports leagues work in conjunction with corporate game developers such as EA, Riot Games and Activision Blizzard to help promote and administer their competitions. Riot Games has even formed its own governing body specifically for League of Legends: the Riot Scholastic Association of America (RSAA). According to RSAA head Matt Nausha, the organization has doled out over $4 million in player scholarships since 2014, with the collegiate scene acting as a minor league of sorts for professional League of Legends. Some collegiate players have ascended to the Academy tier of organized competition, the second-highest level in competitive League. “It’s just a byproduct of us creating more opportunities for these players to hone their skills, really,” Nausha said. “And if they have the opportunities to move upwards into our professional ecosystem, we’d love to see that, too.”
- The governing bodies. In 2019, the NCAA’s Board of Governors voted against getting involved in esports on an organizational level, citing concerns over the male-dominated nature of esports and the extreme violence of some titles. This left the door open for esports-specific governing bodies, such as the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), which was founded in 2016, to expand. Gaffney believes that paying NACE dues helps legitimize collegiate esports in the eyes of skeptical or inexperienced university administrators. “There’s validation in saying, ‘hey, my program will be a member of NACE,’” Gaffney said. Other governing bodies in the collegiate esports space include the Electronic Gaming Federation, the American Collegiate Esports League and the Riot-Games-owned RSAA.
Growing pains and potential futures
As professional gaming becomes a viable career, increasing numbers of students are taking schools’ esports programs into consideration while applying to college, and NACE counts over 170 schools among its ranks. “It actually brings students in,” Gaffney said, “so I think that’s solid enough for colleges to keep going.”
But that doesn’t mean every popular esport is set to make waves in the collegiate space. Though Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is one of the most prominent esports, few collegiate leagues run Counter-Strike events. “We would likely never do a red-blood shooting title,” Barakat said. “Maybe some blue-blood titles, like a Fortnite or an Overwatch can make sense — they’re more animated — but without naming names, I don’t see us taking on the first-person shooter titles that are violent, with red blood.”
Recently, the shooter title Valorant has experienced some success in collegiate competitions. The Riot Games shooter builds on the more palatable combat of Overwatch, with magical weapons that stay far away from the realistic firearms and violence of games like Call of Duty. “We’re seeing a lot of voices in the scholastic space, both on the college and high school front, asking for Valorant,” Nausha said. “So we are actively looking into that.”
One reason why schools may have expressed skepticism about fielding teams in shooter titles is the NCAA’s aforementioned concerns over violent content. But with first-person shooters such as Overwatch now a standard element of college esports programs — and the number of female competitors on the rise — the moment seems as ripe as ever for the NCAA to make its presence in esports known.
This could cause friction among the governing bodies that already exist in the space, but Nausha is confident that his organization will be able to work in tandem with the NCAA, if and when it dips its toes into esports. “If they were to ever come back, they know that they have to be working with the publishers, because of IP — it’s not traditional sports, it’s not a direct one-to-one,” Nausha said. “We’d absolutely be interested in having a collaborative working relationship with them, and that is true for others in the ecosystem currently.”
Regardless of how the collegiate esports landscape takes shape, each of the 10 organizations, schools and governing bodies that Digiday contacted for this rundown was confident that competitive gaming will — or has already — become a core element of the college experience. The rise in interest sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic simply accelerated an expansion that was already underway. “By hook or by crook, esports has proven it’s a valid presence on these campuses,” Gaffney said. “Students will play and will gladly give up their time, just like we used to do 10 years ago. That passion is still there.”
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