• Nielsen reported that 50 percent of college-aged esports fans in the US believe esports should be a university/collegiate sport.
  • Collegiate esports may be a better value add for non-endemic brands looking to market to an esports audience but at a lower cost than professional esports.
  • By partnering with sponsors and revenues through arenas, schools can implement cost-neutral esports programs.
  • Schools generate awareness of their programs through community engagement and recruitment, similar to traditional sports programs.
  • League of Legends is the most popular collegiate esport.

As professional esports continues its explosive growth, even attracting support from traditional sports, another sector has been growing steadily along with it: collegiate esports.

Ever since Robert Morris University first announced its esports program in 2017, more schools are looking to develop programs of their own in order to connect with students, attract new ones and help them build skills that are needed for the future marketplace.

The trend seems to be growing at a phenomenal rate, as Nielsen reported: “50 percent of college-aged esports fans in the US believe esports should be a university/collegiate sport,” in its Q2 2017 Nielsen Esports Fan Insights report.

One of the first sponsors to get into the collegiate esports space is the custom computer maker iBuyPower, which is a major sponsor for both Robert Morris University and University of California Irvine’s esports programs. The company currently supports over 15 university esports programs and is actively looking to develop more.

“We felt that it was a natural progression for us to engage the esports community,” Tyrone Wang, esports marketing manager at iBuyPower, told AListDaily. “Over the years, we’ve partnered with professional esports organizations, tournaments and leagues. When the opportunity came around, we immediately wanted to take a stance and solidify our care for the esports community into burgeoning, collegiate esports programs.”

Wang also said that more sponsors should consider the collegiate esports space because it represents esports in its purest form.

“It’s as grassroots as it gets, where students congregate together and share their passions,” said Wang. “Students creating clubs and hosting amazing events for their peers to enjoy. It is the most selfless form of esports.”

AListDaily spoke to Kurt Melcher from Robert Morris University, Mark Deppe from the University of California Irvine and Dr. Jay O’Toole from Georgia State University—all heads of their respective esports programs—to get a deeper insight into the fast-growing space, how they’re reaching prospective students, and what opportunities there are for brand sponsors.

Robert Morris University

Robert Morris is the first university in the world to offer athletic scholarships for esports, specifically for the game League of Legends. It has since expanded to include six competitive games with a dedicated on-campus esports arena built within the first year. It now has around 80 students participating in the program with the coaching staff recruiting more each year, and the program serves as a foundational template as other universities across North America look to develop esports programs of their own.

Kurt Melcher, executive director of esports at Robert Morris University and Intersport

“I think, as more programs become formalized and scholarships are offered, there are more opportunities for students,” said Kurt Melcher, executive director of esports at Robert Morris University and Intersport, to AListDaily. “I one-hundred percent believe in the value added to university education that athletics can provide, whether that’s through being part of a team in a larger program base, learning communication skills or becoming better at a title and growing as a player. Character-wise, there are key components that athletics can uniquely bring to a student athlete that probably don’t exist anywhere outside a traditional education system.”

Melcher has been at the university for over 15 years as an athletic administrator and loves playing games like League of Legends in his free time. The idea to propose an esports program occurred to him one night after competing against some highly skilled players. He proposed treating esports like any other sport at the school, which led to a close connection between it and the traditional sports program. However, not all schools link the two programs together.

“From all the different programs, I think we see about 40 percent in athletics and 40 percent in some kind of student services, like a high-functioning club that the school decided to formalize with facilities, administration and funding,” said Melcher. “Then we see another subset, which is a smaller percentage, that are in academic programs like at University of Utah. Different schools are taking different approaches on how to establish esports according to what fits their needs the best in deciding where it should live, but to me, the key component is that something gets started.”

Melcher says the school takes a close look at whether the community has adopted a game as an esport before considering it for its program.

“To me, there’s a big difference between video gaming and esports,” explained Melcher. “We don’t put them through the ringer like KPI metrics, but we could have added Overwatch when it came out last year because we knew it would be a big game. But we decided to take a year to see how it forms and looks competitively, and that’s why we’re adding it this fall. We’re out and recruiting for it. Really, it’s just having the finger on the pulse of what is a top-tier title in esports across the ecosystem and mirroring that.”

Although Robert Morris doesn’t work directly with game developers to promote its esports program, Melcher said that they do offer indirect support for growing the collegiate system. For example, Riot has a campus series for League of Legends (uLoL), which broadcasts collegiate tournaments on Twitch and YouTube. However, collegiate esports viewership is nowhere near as popular as the main esports events, so Robert Morris must directly engage with prospective students to get the word out.

“We rely a lot on our coaching staff to have deep ties with the community and to reach into it to create awareness, letting interested students know that there are opportunities here for them,” said Melcher. “From there, they sift through applicants as a traditional coach would do or they would go after a certain player and recruit them by offering a scholarship, presenting the program and offering a tour. It’s not that far outside of traditional athletics recruiting other than there’s no AAU (Amateur Athletics Union) program or organized high school program to search through. So, I think those ties to the community are vital.”

Robert Morris’ esports sponsors include iBuyPower, DXRacer, Asus and SteelSeries—many of whom have pro esports sponsorships.

“I’m interested in seeing what the next level looks like,” said Melcher. “Is there interest from non-endemic sponsors to have a unique opportunity to touch this demographic? As esports grows on the pro side, I have a feeling that those professional sponsorship opportunities will escalate rapidly because of franchise costs. So, there may be a better value add for those non-endemic brands to market to the same people through collegiate esports, although we’re still early as far as comparing eyeballs on product. But I think we’ll get there, and at a much lower entry price.”

University Of California Irvine (UCI)

UCI’s esports program has four pillars focusing on competition, academics and research, community and entertainment,” Mark Deppe, acting director for UCI esports, told AListDaily.

Mark Deppe, acting director for UCI esports

To meet these goals, the school offers scholarship programs for League of Legends and Overwatch and helps its teams compete with jersey support and time in the campus esports arena (which opened last year) for practice competitions. The esports program also ties into academics by partnering with faculty to study video game-related topics, including funding undergraduate research and hosting an esports symposium.

According to Deppe, UCI has one of the most successful college gaming communities around, and its clubs have regular access to the arena for meetings in addition to having a community corner where students can bring in their consoles for social competitions. On the entertainment side, UCI is creating content through live events, tournaments and online videos with an emphasis on streaming and casting this year.

The idea for an esports program at UCI emerged two years ago, when Deppe wrote a strategy paper about Blizzard Entertainment as part of a business school project. Coincidentally, Deppe also came across an article on Facebook that ranked UCI as the top school for gamers in North America—given its top League of Legends club teams—at the same time he was discovering how big esports was becoming and how schools, particularly Robert Morris University, had their own esports programs. Deppe worked with the university administrators to find a cost neutral way of hosting an esports program by partnering with sponsors such as iBuyPower, Oomba, Logitech and Vertagear in addition to generating revenue through the arena.

“Combined with a great computer science program and UCI, it just seemed intuitive that we would be a good school to consider an esports program or scholarship, given that we had so much going for us,” said Deppe. “Also, [there’s] our geographical location in Southern California with a proximity to hardware and software companies that are doing big things in esports.”

UCI’s esports program falls under its student affairs branch, and the university conducted a campus-wide survey to decide which games to include. Unsurprisingly, League of Legends was the top pick and more games, including Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone and Overwatch were added later. Given the school’s close geographical proximity to Blizzard, the developer is often invited to events. But although it has helped to grow collegiate esports, it does not work directly with the university host or promote tournaments.

Word about UCI esports spread quickly, making it easier to approach prospective students. Deppe said that being relevant was an important factor in presenting the esports program.

Image credit: Steve Zylius, UCI

“Our scholarship teams need to do well,” said Deppe. “So far, college esports has gotten a lot of excitement and our program has been featured heavily in the media. So, there’s a large awareness of what our program is and what we offer. We also have a recruitment link on our website where people can opt to give us their contact information and share links to their online gamer profiles. We probably get a couple dozen applications a day, so there’s definitely a broad understanding of our program.”

Deppe also stated that it received PR support from game developers such as Riot helped amplify UCI’s story in addition to the university’s own media events, such as the opening of the esports arena last year. Furthermore, other groups tout UCI when its teams make it to championship matches.

“The times are changing—there’s a lot of interest in video games,” said Deppe, commenting on the fast growth of collegiate esports. “Everybody plays them, whether you’re a mobile gamer or hardcore PC or console gamer. And I think people are transitioning from traditional forms of competition to digital ones. So, I think it’s a recognition that this is how people engage nowadays. Whether you look at it as a way to support student interests or a way to generate school spirit or awareness about your university, I think there are a lot of different reasons people are creating programs. I definitely think that it’s a trend that will continue and will probably speed up.”

Georgia State University (GSU)

Collegiate esports is growing rapidly, as Georgia State University announced its program in August. It’s headed by Dr. Jay O’Toole, assistant professor in managerial sciences, faculty affiliate in the Creative Media Industries Institute and director of university esports at Georgia State University.

Jay O’Toole, director of university esports at Georgia State University

“The main focus for us is meeting students where they already are,” O’Toole told AListDaily. “So many students are interested in esports and game development that we saw this as an opportunity to meet students where their interests lie and help them develop their knowledge, skills and abilities.”

O’Toole said that GSU plans on building an esports practice facility and will be participating in NACE (The National Association of Collegiate Esports) varsity competitions in the fall for League of Legends and Smite, and those team members will receive $1,000 scholarships each to help with their tuition or augment their HOPE scholarships. Additionally, the school will participate in the Georgia Esports League in the free-to-play games Paladins and Brawlhalla. Both Paladins and Smite are made by Georgia-based developer Hi-Rez Studios.

“Georgia State, recognized as one of the nation’s most innovative universities, is now leading the way in esports,” Todd Harris, co-founder and COO of Hi-Rez Studios, told AListDaily. “Schools today are competing to attract, retain and prepare students for STEM-oriented career fields. Esports hits all of the above! For that reason, I expect it is just a matter of time before other Georgia universities follow-up with their own varsity esports programs.”

“There are so many skills that go beyond the competitive gaming component,” said O’Toole. “Broadcasting, coding, marketing and PR, TV production (such as livestreaming) skills. So, we see this not as an opportunity not just to support students who are interested in competitive gaming, but really to help build their knowledge and abilities across the board.”

As part of the Creative Media Industries Institute, O’Toole studied the esports space for quite some time.

“This is not just a popular growth that we see in media,” said O’Toole. “Viewership of esports is surpassing traditional sports like basketball and baseball. [Plus], there’s a need here in Georgia for the exact skills that relate to esports, and it’s a way to connect students with industry folks. We all know that technology changes so quickly that understanding what students need to know and what skills they need to develop—looking forward 10 years—is hard to predict. But we know that if you’re involved in spaces, sectors and industries like esports, these are the skills that they’re going to need.”

GSU’s esports program is being run as a university initiative and has no association with its athletics department, but that may change as it evolves, so long as it remains focused on the growth and development of students.

Students were made aware of the new esports program through a campus-wide email and through information sessions, and the school is asking its students who are already active in esports to help recruit others. The program is bound to get more local attention when the student-run university television station begins broadcasting matches.

GSU is currently looking for program sponsors, and O’Toole sees it as an excellent way for the school to connect with industry partners. Even though Georgia has over 3,000 video game company employees and the industry generates over $278 million in revenue—making it a very robust sector of the state’s economy—sponsorship isn’t necessarily limited to dollars. The school wants sponsors to provide rich learning opportunities for its students. For example, Georgia Esports League competitors have a chance to earn scholarships and internships at local gaming related companies such as Hi-Rez Studios, Tripwire Interactive and Turner Broadcasting.

“Our primary mission is supporting the growth, development and education of our students, preparing them for the future,” said O’Toole. “It’s not enough to say, ‘Here are the skills you need to have. I’m going to teach you all about them and you just learn because I’m telling you to learn.’ We need to engage our students meaningfully, and a big component of getting students into the content that they’re learning is finding their interests—connecting the skills, knowledge and abilities they need to develop to what they’re already interested in. With esports growing so rapidly, this is a great opportunity for colleges to engage their students in something that they’re already interested in and has meaningful connections to professional development and civic engagement.”