Why you should care
As colleges invest in varsity esports, recruits look to a new wave of high-tech arenas to determine who really means business.
Over the Christmas break in 2009, millions of gamers across the country spent hours playing games that were then rated as the best. Games such as Left 4 Dead 2, a first-person shooter set during the aftermath of an apocalyptic zombie pandemic, and New Super Mario Bros., available on the laughably outdated Nintendo Wii. Meanwhile, their parents spent the holiday season begging their children to “come upstairs and read a book. You’re frying your brain!”
How things have changed.
A rapid explosion in esports globally has turned it into a billion-dollar industry that is now fast emerging as a pathway to higher education. At major universities like Marquette, Ohio State and the University of California, campus esports clubs have made way for competitive varsity teams. Nearly 200 U.S. colleges now have active esports programs, and many are offering scholarships totaling roughly $15 million per year. Take that, Mom and Dad.
Combine subsidized education with earning potential in a burgeoning industry and it’s no wonder an increasing number of young gamers see college as a viable career launching pad. Last semester, nearly 3,500 varsity esports athletes participated at National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) programs, only about 1,000 fewer than the number of NCAA Division-I basketball players across 347 hoops programs. In May, the NCAA chose to leave governing responsibilities to NACE. Untethered by the NCAA’s amateur framework, college esports players keep their tournament winnings — the only collegiate athletes officially playing for pay.
The best high school players will have anywhere from five to 20 schools after them.
Drew Crowder, esports marketing and events manager
Now, colleges are taking yet another step in their efforts to lure esports athletes. They’re investing millions on high-tech, multipurpose esports arenas that are helping further legitimize gaming in the world of major college athletics. In May, Full Sail University in Florida officially opened a new $6 million, 11,200-square-foot esports arena. Dubbed “The Fortress Sports Arena,” it features high-end monitors and video production equipment, along with room for 500 fans, making it the largest competitive gaming venue on a college campus. Ohio State is building a 4,000-square-foot, 80-seat gaming arena that will house the school’s esports teams and spearhead the development of a newly formed league of Power 5 schools commissioned by the Electronic Gaming Federation. UC Irvine, Hawai‘i Pacific, Vermont and Washington are among other universities that have built — or are building — campus esports arenas.
“Our administration wanted to make efforts so that our graduates could break into the growing industry,” says Bennett Newsome, esports strategist at Full Sail. The Fortress “has been called a combination of the Luxor Arena, the Riot Games studio and Overwatch studio.”
For universities, the turn toward esports as a way to appeal to students makes sense. According to market analyst Newzoo, global esports revenue will hit $1.1 billion in 2019, more than five times the amount in 2014. Of that, $409 million will come from North America, the most of any region. Merchandise and ticket sales, a huge revenue source in traditional collegiate sports, are expected to grow to nearly $104 million. “It’s no secret that esports is the fastest-growing sport in the world,” says esports marketing and events manager Drew Crowder. “This movement has gone global. Not even American football can say that.”
At places like Full Sail, a for-profit university specializing in a range of technical degrees like audio production, gaming design and broadcasting, it’s even more of a no-brainer to invest in esports. “So many of our degrees feed into the esports industry, it made too much sense not to be involved,” says Newsome. The Fortress has already played host to an NBA 2K League tournament, and the Call of Duty Collegiate Invitational is coming up in July.
Much like any university’s athletic community, Full Sail has an esports culture that runs much deeper than the varsity teams. The Armada is Full Sail’s gaming organization, a blanket name for an entire community of clubs, teams and fans. The Fortress is home to any student involved with Armada, from varsity athletes to students interested in gaming broadcasting, aka shoutcasting. When Full Sail announced tryouts for its first varsity teams in 2017, Newsome quickly learned that the school’s esports community was more engaged than he anticipated. “Within a week or two, we had over 1,400 responses from interested, esports-active students,” he says. Schools across the country are finding similar demand.
To be sure, parents around the world remain concerned about the impact of virally popular video games on their kids. Amid the wild success of Fortnite — which has drawn more than 200 million players — many parents sent their kids to rehab. But what was until now considered a potentially harmful distraction is increasingly both a lucrative career option and a credible way to support college education, a shift that analysts expect will blunt any significant pushback.
Robert Morris University, where gamers can earn up to $19,000 a year in financial aid, was the first U.S. college to offer scholarships in 2014. And in April 2018, Ohio’s Ashland University became the first college to offer scholarships specifically for Fortnite. Scholarship amounts vary by school. For instance, Miami University in Ohio, the first Division I program on board, began with $4,000 in funds to each varsity player. But thanks to the NCAA’s absence, the athletes keep tournament earnings.
In a booming industry, with millions at stake, it should come as no surprise that serious recruiting is beginning to catch on. Third-party consultants like BeRecruited are popping up to help connect prospects with colleges, and universities are on the prowl at most regional championships. “The best high school players will have anywhere from five to 20 schools after them,” says Crowder. “It’s getting to the point where there’s enough school for every kid who has the skills.”
As Full Sail can attest, a high-tech arena is a premium recruiting tool. UC-Irvine’s UCI Esports Arena is one of the top collegiate gaming centers in the country. Smaller schools are entering the market too. Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg University is home to a professional practice facility, as are some of the country’s biggest schools.
“Ohio State is known for high-performance athletics, and esports plays to this strength,” says James Onate, co-director of Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s program on sports medicine and performance. “The methods are the same as any other sport; the skills are just different.”
With the involvement of big schools like Ohio State, an impending Power 5 league and millions of dollars on the line, why is the NCAA staying away for now? Title IX requirements on proportional participation and scholarships for women present a challenge, and there’s no simple way to apply traditional NCAA regulations to esports, say analysts. If cash winnings were to be eliminated, for instance, what’s stopping players from simply turning professional? “The market is so complex that the NCAA probably doesn’t know where to start,” says Crowder. “The less involvement, the better.”
Sure, esports may not be for everyone, but the numbers tell us that they are for the many. As universities build esports-minded curricula in lockstep with the industry, only one question remains: How big can this get?
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