The professional e-sport industry is rapidly expanding, with signs showing that higher ed is buying in.
While e-sport culture has existed for many years in clubs and extracurricular activities on campus, now administrators are seeing opportunities to use the trend for boosting outreach and enrollment, according to Glenn Platt, Ph.D., a professor of marketing and interactive media at Miami University in Ohio. Platt is also the director of the school’s Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies.
“We’re seeing a lot of legitimization of it as a sport, and investors are following behind it. You have major sports teams investing in e-sports teams,” he said. “It’s not surprising, as the professional world around it has evolved, the collegiate world would follow behind.”
Institutions already buying into e-sports, despite uncertainty
E-sports are professional video game tournaments, often involving multiple players, and the audience is committed and growing, according to Platt. He notes that more people watched the e-sports finals than any other sporting event, besides the Super Bowl. In fact, the E-sports finals at Madison Square Garden in New York and Staples Center in Los Angeles both sold out within an hour.
This past fall, Miami University became the first Division 1 school to have a varsity e-sports team, and Platt said a game last semester had more streaming viewers the school’s football, basketball and hockey matches throughout the entire year. The Guardian even reports the possibility that e-sports will be included in the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Still, Platt said there is administrators throughout the industry are unsure how to support e-sports initiatives on campus, and he likens the current collegiate e-sports environment to the “wild west.” The simple reason why is that many administrators feel that e-sports are not sports.
The games played by students are intellectual property owned by a private company, which can make it difficult for a governing body like the NCAA to manage a nationwide competitive effort. Institutions are therefore hesitant to classify it as a sport because the demographics of gamers skew exceedingly male, and schools would have difficulty adhering to Title IX regulations.
“There is a lot of reticence and not knowing what to do with it, or where it goes. Where do you put it administratively?” Platt said, noting that at Miami it was housed in an academic department; Platt led the team, but he is not a coach. He said the more common administrative process was to run an esports team out of student affairs, as they often develop out of club teams.
However, despite administrative hurdles, e-sports teams and labs are reaching new college campuses. Last April, the University of Nevada Las Vegas announced the creation of a new E-sports Lab, and UC Irvine created a new ‘arena’ for competition and a live webcasting studio to match its new team. There are about 40 schools with varsity teams throughout the country, according to Platt, and many are offering scholarships. While some are thousands of dollars — others, like the University of Utah, are offering full ride scholarships to talented gamers.
Revenue streams from e-sports not clear cut, but opportunities are definitely present
Platt acknowledged e-sports do not offer a straightforward revenue stream in the way ticket sales for a football game could for a school, but investing in an e-sports team could produce opportunities institutions. The popularity of the pastime in many other countries surpasses its popularity in the United States, and a strong school team or e-sports culture could help to attract international students — a tactic schools are already turning to when faced with declining enrollment.
Esport tournaments and events also offer an opportunity to build a school’s brand, as well as new outreach platform as Generation Z embarks on its’ college search. Those students may not respond to print or e-mail outreach, but advertising during e-sport tournaments and events could potentially help a school reach millions.
Additionally, there are financial opportunities for industry partnerships, including the sponsoring of arenas and school tournaments which could increase revenue. Platt said schools could broker deals with companies to sponsor e-sport "arenas," which are often massive banks of computers built for multiplayer gaming. UC Irvine’s arena was sponsored by IBuyPower, a custom gaming company.
“For them, this is a total win, because it’s IBuyPower Arena,” Platt said. “And every time that team is competing, and every time they’re streaming to thousands of people, that brand is right there for people to see.”
E-sport teams could also help attract potential STEM student applicants, as Platt noted a high correlation between gaming skills and strong STEM proficiency. And, e-sports also offers an opportunity for a different kind of long-term fundraising from tech entrepreneurs who made it big; Platt speculated these alumni may not be interested in funding a school’s next football stadium — they may be more attracted to the next e-sport arena.