You are here

Beyond the News

E-sports opens athletics to new group of college students

University Business, March 2018
ATHLETIC INCLUSION—The University of California, Irvine, fields competitive e-sports teams while working to diversify gaming.
ATHLETIC INCLUSION—The University of California, Irvine, fields competitive e-sports teams while working to diversify gaming.

Launching new athletic programs—a go-to strategy for driving enrollment and boosting campus enthusiasm—usually comes with some major costs. But some institutions have added a rapidly growing, co-ed sport that doesn’t require an expensive new athletic complex or a big travel budget.

Competitive, online video-gaming, also known as e-sports, checks several inclusive and low-cost boxes, and is growing quickly.

E-sports accommodations

The University of Providence in Great Falls, Montana—one of the latest to get on board—is retrofitting a former mailroom and bookstore in its student center to make room for an e-sports program that will begin play in fall 2018.

Varsity campus gaming program growth

2014: 1 program

2016: 7 programs

2018 (February): 63 programs

Source: National Associate of Collegiate ESports

“It’s on the cutting edge, if not already a little bit beyond that, of new opportunities to compete,” says Dave Gantt, vice president for athletics at Providence. The only other expense the university incurred was for new computers and peripherals.

The team’s coach, who advises the campus e-sports club, hopes to recruit about 15 students to focus on one or two video games, such as World of Warcraft. “All of our admissions counselors are armed with the knowledge that we have this sport, and it has been something of interest at every one of their stops,” Gantt says.

In just a few years, the number of varsity campus gaming programs has grown from a single team to more than 60, with hundreds more schools expressing interest, says Michael Brooks, the executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Esports, a governing body that organizes competitions and that sets eligibility and academic requirements.

Studies show that gaming is a strong “unifying interest” for males and females age 10 to 20. “We’re talking about a huge population that before e-sports were launched, there was really no outlet on campus for their primary interest,” he says.

Colleges have created e-sports “arenas” out of old computer labs and other underutilized rooms. And while e-sports has yet to inspire full-blown tailgating parties, competitions are often streamed live with students providing play-by-play commentary.

Academic connections

At the University of California, Irvine, competitive gaming extends into academics, says Mark Deppe, acting director of e-sports. The program, with 13 varsity players, has funded university research into the learning applications of gaming.

To further diversify e-sports, the university offers summer gaming camps for female high school students and underrepresented young people. The university this winter also helped launch a regional high school gaming league.

“The research out there shows that women and men can compete equally, given equal access,” Deppe says. “But online culture can be toxic sometimes—there can be in-game harassment and bullying—and we think we can be an influence against that.”