Pandemic hasn’t knocked college esports off its game

The idea a college would bestow a scholarship worth thousands of dollars to a student to play video games might, at one point, have been written off as a Mountain Dew and Dorito-fueled pipe dream. 

Not so in 2020, when competitive online gaming, known as esports, is expected to be worth around $1.4 billion globally and has made significant inroads into higher education in a short period. The National Association of Collegiate eSports, which has begun resembling the industry’s counterpart to the NCAA, started with six member institutions in 2016 and has since blossomed to more than 170, its founder and executive director Michael Brooks said. 

Institutions nationwide have begun to invest heavily in esports, creating club- and varsity-level teams to battle other schools, constructing their own arenas complete with gaming computers and equipment, and even adding academic courses designed to teach students how to manage professional programs. Professional esports have also exploded, with worldwide tournaments and top gamers locking down lucrative sponsorship deals.

Esports also haven’t suffered to the same extent as other aspects of higher ed in the COVID-19 era. 

Institutions are seeking alternatives to the hallmarks of the college experience as the coronavirus prohibits gatherings like campus concerts and sporting events, Brooks explained. Esports can help fill that gap because students don’t need to be in the same room to play together. Universities can stream matches online. 

And maintaining or even starting an esports program is a relatively inexpensive endeavor. Most programs only have one or two staffers, so there’s not much to scale back in a pandemic, Brooks said. 

Plus, the fact that the health crisis only slowed, and not derailed, some institutions’ programs, bodes well, Brooks said.

“The rush to start a new program has cooled down a bit,” he said. “But we’re still getting new member requests.”

 Collegiate esports grows

 Robert Morris University Illinois, a private college that was recently acquired by Chicago’s Roosevelt University, is credited with developing the first varsity esports framework. It gave out scholarships, issued uniforms and set a stringent practice schedule akin to conventional athletics.

Many other institutions have since followed in its digital footsteps. The titles colleges pick are often the same, among them League of Legends, Super Smash Bros. and Overwatch.

Esports models differ among institutions, though. Some house teams in their athletic departments while others base them in student affairs, making them similar to a club. Others offer academic courses in areas such as the business of esports or game design. And many have some combination of teams and classes.  

Small, private institutions, where “a difference of 15 students can affect the bottom line” tend to leverage…

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