On October 19, 1972, students gathered at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence lab in Los Altos, California to compete in the first ever video game tournament for Spacewar, a space combat video game. The winner would go on to receive the prize of a subscription to Rolling Stone Magazine.
Fast forward to today, students receive thousands of dollars in esports scholarships, have access to state-of-the-art training facilities, a coaching staff, and many other benefits that come with competing in collegiate esports. The potential opportunities that exist for these collegiate gamers have increased exponentially and have opened up doors for those who might not have otherwise considered college based on academics or traditional sports.
The Schools That Laid the Foundation
According to Next College Student Athlete, one of the largest athletic recruiting networks, 175 colleges and universities offer esports at the Varsity level. The following schools helped lay the foundation for the future of collegiate esports.
- 2014 - Robert Morris University (Illinois), was the first school to offer esports scholarships and the first college to recognize esports as an official sport.
- 2016 - The University of California at Irvine (UCI) announced its esports program, making it the first public research university to offer esports scholarships. Students also have the opportunity to earn a degree in video game-related fields with a major in Computer Game Science.
- 2017 - The University of Utah, the first university in the Power Five athletic conference, officially adopted esports by offering scholarships to students competing in League of Legends, Overwatch, and Rocket League.
- 2018 - Harrisburg University awarded their first full-ride scholarships to their entire 16-player roster.
- Fall 2022 - West Virginia University will offer a 15-credit minor in esports alongside the launch of a new esports team. According to Maryanne Reed, provost and vice president for academic affairs, “Developing curricula in esports recognizes that it is a billion-dollar-plus industry that will require professionals with skills in business, media marketing, and promotions. As WVU launches its own esports team, there will be many opportunities for students to apply the skills they learn in the classroom.”
Regulating College Esports
Scholarships are not the only benefits esports players can receive. Many players exercise their freedom to license their own branding as well as their name, image, and likeness (NIL), and often have sponsorships in place at the time of recruitment.
In contrast, traditional college athletes had to abide by rules set forth by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing entity for collegiate student-athletes.
When the NCAA unanimously voted not to govern esports in 2019, that opened doors for third-party organizations to move in. According to a Washington Post interview at the time, the key issue for the NCAA was the definition of amateurism, stating “the inability to get past the fact that gamers might come to college after earning money, have a personal brand already built in their streaming following, and could easily have a sponsorship deal in place…prior to accepting an NCAA scholarship.” In addition, other concerns include potential Title IX issues in a sport dominated by men.
On July 1, 2021, the NCAA adopted an interim NIL policy to “provide all individuals an opportunity to exercise their name, image and likeness rights.” With this new policy in place, many wonder if the NCAA may take another look at esports as it reorganizes and changes its outlook on professionalism.
Publishers and Organizations Make their Move
Riot Games, the creator of the popular esports game, League of Legends (LoL), formed the Riot Scholastic Association of America (RSAA) soon after the NCAA removed itself as a possible governing entity in college esports, creating a path for game publishers to have the ability to take an active role in the regulation of their own games.
In addition to game publishers, third-party organizations like the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), American Collegiate Esports League (ACEL), and the Electronic Gaming Federation (EFG), who have already begun creating esports programs all over the country, saw tremendous growth. Schools were eager to add their own varsity programs and list themselves with an organization where they can compete with similar schools all over North America.
NACE, a non-profit organization formed in 2016 at the first Collegiate Esports Summit, has amassed a school membership from just seven colleges and universities when it began, to over 170 member schools. Along with 5,000 plus student-athletes NACE has given over $16 million in esports scholarships and aid. According to their website, “The purpose of NACE is to promote the education and development of students through intercollegiate esports participation.” Esports is viewed as an integral part of the total educational process.
Next College Student Athlete (NCSA), one of the largest athletic recruiting networks, published a guide for students and parents to explore the suggested pathway to being recruited onto an esports team. The guide suggests the minimum qualified rank for each game that coaches look for in candidates. Players who meet these requirements are encouraged to visit the school and try out for a team.
If League of Legends is your game, coaches are looking for qualified underclassman candidates ranked Gold 4 and up as well as Platinum 4 and up for upperclassmen. For Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, coaches are looking for Gold Nova and up for underclassmen, and Master Guardian and up for upperclassmen. The list of opportunities for esports scholarships is extensive, including popular Battle Royale titles like Fortnite and Apex Legends.
For parents, navigating this new world of competitive gaming with their child can seem daunting. But as more schools create esports programs, higher education is within reach more than ever before, giving students a blueprint for a future in esports collegiately and beyond.