Pacing the stage recently at the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual convention, President Mark Emmert ended his address to thousands of delegates with a surprising topic du jour: video games.
Emmert asked rhetorically -- as many athletics pundits have -- should the NCAA should control collegiate esports? It was apparently a phenomenon dominating conference discussions, as esports have blossomed from brand-new to burgeoning on campuses in fewer than five years, when the first college program was created.
Lingering criticism that esports, often viewed as a sedentary activity, can’t be regarded as an athletic endeavor hasn’t halted its proliferation into athletics departments and student affairs offices in an astonishingly short period.
Esports (not just within colleges) are expected to be valued at $1.4 billion by next year. At least two colleges are planning degrees in esports. The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), the group that has seemingly emerged as the premiere governing body for “varsity”-level esports, has swelled to 128 members. It began in 2016 with six colleges and universities. The current slew of member colleges gave out just under $15 million in scholarships this academic year for students to strap on a headset, grab a mouse and keyboard, and enter the digital fray.
The esports allure for university executives is multifold but summed up succinctly for many institutions: enrollment boosts (although larger colleges and universities that are certainly not wanting for students also sponsor programs).
Granting scholarships to play video games, once perhaps just a Red Bull-fueled fantasy, attracts students -- especially men, who are in the minority in many undergraduate student bodies. And so officials have invested in pricey “arenas” for esports, spaces decked out with gigantic flat screens, slick computers and the best gaming accessories. One small private institution, New England College, with an enrollment of around 1,800 undergraduate students, and a prospective esports team of between 20 and 40 students, poured about $60,000 into its arena.
But esports’ newness on the college scene comes with a sense of unpredictability.
As one esports practitioner phrased it: “It’s a Wild West right now.”
How They Developed