The new college athlete: Why universities are investing in video games
Three years ago, the National Association of Collegiate Esports was a group of six schools. And today, the organization boasts 160-plus schools.
SALT LAKE CITY — Waiting to be picked up after school, freshman Micah Tang would sit in his Pasadena, California, high school cafeteria and play online games on his school-provided iPad.
No one bullied him there.
It didn’t matter that he was short, scrawny and not the fastest kid on his baseball team.
There were no balls to hit here, no catches to flub and no one criticizing his hair or clothes.
By sophomore year, soft-spoken Tang, who had given himself the gaming tag “Ryder,” had a circle of gaming friends and a favorite game in Hearthstone — an online card game based on characters from World of Warcraft.
For hours a day he would memorize cards, arrange lineups and play online matches to boost his rankings. He went through several computer mice, tossing away pieces of broken ones he’d pounded in frustration.
The obsession was tough for his mother, Jennie Chang, to watch.
She grew up being “pelted with the importance of academics,” and that school — not video games — was the “ticket out.”
Yet, here was her son, ambivalent about algebra and English, and utterly absorbed in Mana Crystals, spell cards and weapon attacks.
And with every online win, she saw his interest in college slowly fading.
For decades, collegiate athletic scholarships have been the coveted prize among the country’s strongest, tallest, fastest youth. These “best of the best” train since childhood to be able to compete in their sport and represent their alma mater — while getting their education paid for.
Yet a growing number of students aren’t interested in running across a field or diving into a pool as part of their college experience, and some may not even be interested in college at all. They’re like Tang, consumed by navigating characters on a screen, their fingers flying over the keyboard.
These gamers hungrily soak up success stories of young prodigies who have “gone pro,” making thousands of dollars by playing video games and/or streaming their play to online followers in the massively popular field of electronic sports, or esports.
Three years ago, the National Association of Collegiate Esports was a group of six schools. By 2017, NACE had 27 colleges with varsity-level esports and today, the organization boasts 160-plus schools and growing. The University of Utah made headlines when it became the first school within the Power Five conferences to welcome esports at the varsity — not just club — level.
In May, ESPN hosted its first collegiate esports championship — in which the University of Utah’s Overwatch team made it to the finals — and a few weeks later, Riot Games, which publishes League of Legends, one of the most popular esports titles, announced the creation of Riot Scholastic Association of America — an advisory board of six who will work with the publisher to manage high school and collegiate esports.
By investing in varsity-level esports teams and wooing hard-core gamers with scholarship dollars, colleges hope to communicate that not only is their university in sync with student interests, but that video games — contrary to lingering stereotypes, parental concerns and even professional esports funding woes — can actually be a path to college and contribute to a successful future.
The esports is world
Esports is often mistakenly referred to as a “new phenomenon,” or a “rising trend,” — yet in reality it’s a massive industry with millions of participants, both players and fans, but remains under the radar because it’s not part of “mainstream television.”
Instead, fans and players view games and stream their own play on platforms like YouTube and Twitch — where 4 million monthly streamers and their fans have already watched 408 billion minutes of gameplay this year — and chat with each other on Discord — sending 315 million messages a day.
But the bigger esports gets, the harder it is to ignore. Consider these facts:
The 2017 League of Legends World Championship final, held in the Bejing National Stadium, had a peak viewership of more than 106 million — just shy of the audience for the 2018 Super Bowl.
And last year in Utah, teams from Spacestation Gaming, the state’s largest professional esports organization headquartered 25 miles north of Salt Lake City, won $250,000 in prize money. This year, they’ve already pulled in another $250,000, the money shared among the winning team’s players.
That prize money is in addition to annual salaries for Spacestation Gaming’s 50 professional esports players, salaries which range from $16,000 to $60,000, depending on whether it’s more of a hobby/side-gig or the player’s entire life. But even $16,000 isn’t bad for gamers who stay in the team home, all expenses covered while they live the dream.
Yet despite being a massive, lucrative field, some still struggle to label video games a sport, while others find the title perfectly accurate.
First, both are play and something people do voluntarily, explains Seth Jenny, a professor in the department of public health at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, and author of several papers on the topic.
Both esports and traditional sports are organized, with rules and a clear winner and loser. They require teamwork, communication, skill and physical movement — whether it’s fine-motor skills or large muscle group movements.
And just like traditional sports, most gamers competitively specialize in one game, or game genre, though they may dabble in several recreationally.
Super Smash Bros., and Street Fighter are both player-to-player games, while Madden, NBA 2K or Rocket League (car soccer), mirror real-life sporting events.
Other games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), Call of Duty and Overwatch take a first-person shooter approach, where the game is seen through the eyes of the character whose must complete missions and take out other players.
Real-time strategy games like StarCraft and Warcraft have gamers looking down on a map or level while trying to complete objectives, often one player versus one player, while multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games require a team effort to complete the task, like League of Legends, (LoL) Heroes of the Storm or Defense of the Ancients (Dota), according to Discover Esports.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite are both examples of a battle royale game, in which the last person standing amid a host of other combatants wins.
Hearthstone, as a card game, has no shooting or stakeouts, but like chess, requires quick thinking and the ability to capitalize on an opponent’s mistake.
With such an array of games, there’s something for everyone, not just teenage boys — society’s default image of a gamer, says Jenny.
In fact, 43% of U.S. adults say they “often or sometimes play video games on a computer, TV, game console” or cellphone, according to Pew Research Center. Among 18-29 year olds, nearly 50% of women say they game often or sometimes, while 72% of men their same age are gaming.
And while most senior citizens aren’t gaming (a small percent do), they’re still watching television, says Jenny.
“So it’s all right to watch Jeopardy and (say) ‘We’re ... not going to miss a show,’ but saying that you’re doing that same amount of video game playing? It’s not seen as a worthwhile endeavor,” he says. “I think there’s a little bit of a double standard when it comes to screen time.”
Big gamer on campus
When Jordan Runyan started at the University of Utah in 2014, League of Legends was the top game. An avid LoL player himself, Runyan wanted to grow the club team, but kept meeting students just as passionate about other games. So they banded together and formed one of the first 50 chapters of Tespa, a network of college clubs designed “to promote gaming culture and host the best college esports events and competitions,” according to the group’s website.
“No matter what game you play, we have a home for you here on campus,” Runyan would tell interested students.
Crimson Gaming, as the club became known, hosted monthly campus events and larger invitational tournaments, with other college clubs from Utah, Las Vegas and even Arizona, often attracting kids who didn’t fit in elsewhere, says A.J. Dimick, director of the Utah’s esports program.
“There’s this group of students on these campuses who have really disengaged from what I would (call) mainstream collegiate experiences,” says Dimick, a lifelong Ute fan and gamer. “It’s important to me to bring them back into the fold and let them know the university is on their side.”
Such support is crucial, says Dimick, because every gamer can rattle off society’s stereotypes: gamers are pale, overweight, unemployed and living in their parents’ basement.
Yet so many of Dimick’s gamers are high-GPA students in STEM-related fields — normal, healthy, hirable kids who are interested in Overwatch and League of Legends the way their parents and grandparents soaked up baseball, basketball and football.
And that shift is measurable.
In 2000, the median age of television viewers for the NFL was 44. By 2016 it was 50.
For NCAA basketball, it jumped from 44 to 52 years. Even Olympic interest shifted from an average 45-year-old viewer to a 53-year-old one, according to MAGNA analysis of Nielsen audience data from 2017.
If Gen Z college students aren’t as interested in traditional sports, and aren’t bonding with fellow undergraduates at college football or basketball games, how would they develop a sense of school spirit? Would they feel any pride in their university?
“What we know, is that if we can get our students involved in something … they are much more likely to stay with us and graduate,” says University of Utah President Emeritus David Pershing, “and that’s the ultimate goal.”
A Gallup-Purdue Index Report from 2014 found that of graduates who had joined an on-campus club or organization, 21% felt emotionally attached to their schools, compared with 14% of non-club-attending graduates. That emotional attachment not only predicted higher graduation rates but increased “thriving” in later life.
So, when Runyan and Dimick approached Pershing and other administrators about starting varsity level gaming, it just made sense, says Pershing, noting the school was already ranked No. 10 for game design by The Princeton Review, and had a strong entertainment arts and engineering program, which would host the teams.
So the University of Utah formed its varsity teams in 2017 and Runyan played/coached the Hearthstone team to a top eight national finish that year. Crimson Gaming remains the college’s gaming club, and similar gaming clubs exist at colleges throughout the state.
While the University of Utah was the first Power Five school to add varsity esports, the very first collegiate esports team was in Chicago.
In 2014, Robert Morris University offered 35 players partial scholarships to play League of Legends, and within a month of the announcement, the small liberal arts college had received 1,500 emails from students interested in esports and the school.
The teams and scholarships weren’t recruiting gimmicks, emphasizes Kurt Melcher, executive director of esports for RMU Illinois. Rather, they offered a “new student demographic an opportunity to participate in athletics and increase student engagement,” he said.
Today RMU has more than 80 esports athletes decked out in uniforms, warmup outfits and backpacks, like any other collegiate athlete.
“They’re so proud of being able to represent the university for what they’re passionate about, they never take that stuff off,” Melcher laughs. “They’re wearing it nonstop. It adds to our school community.”
Despite the massive popularity of esports, most experts point out a growing sense of uneasiness in the financial sustainability of the professional world, making a pro career as unstable as it is competitive.
While esports has been around for a long time, the sharp increase in online viewership, prize pools and salaries is much newer, which leads to concern about the “sustainability of that ... and what the business model is really going to look like,” says Jonathan Singer, industry strategist for video games at Akamai, a content delivery network based in Massachusetts.
Unlike traditional sports, which rely heavily on revenue from broadcast rights, ticket sales and merchandise, the current esports model relies almost solely on sponsorships and investments.
Although many esports tournaments have millions of viewers, fans are all watching for free — there’s no pay-per-view component, points out Duncan “Thorin” Shields, a journalist in the U.K. dubbed the “Esports Historian,” due to his 18-plus years in the field. (There are some tournaments with in-game purchases/donations, but that’s not the standard.)
“People from the mainstream who’ve been in actual sports, the first thing they realize is the monetization isn’t there,” says Shields. “It’s like everyone is vying for a spot at the trough, but no one has put the food in the trough yet.”
A recent in-depth piece published on Kotaku, a video game website and blog, even calls the esports industry a “bubble,” pointing out that despite “the huge amounts of cash pouring” in, “investment is not revenue, nor is it earnings.”
Yet if the bubble bursts, video gaming doesn’t disappear — just like the dot-com bubble didn’t shut down the internet — it just means a “slower road to whatever the professional (esports) thing looks like,” says Singer.
But that’s not slowing down the “explosive” growth of collegiate esports, which has different goals than professional esports, says Jay Prescott, executive director of the esports program for Grand View University, a small private university in Des Moines, Iowa, and advisory board member for the newly created National Association of Esports Coaches and Directors.
He likens collegiate esports to the NCAA March Madness, while professional esports is the NBA finals. Both involve basketball, but one doesn’t require the success of the other.
And unlike professional teams, vying for sponsorships and big investments, colleges aren’t saying, “we’re going to make so much money by having a college esports team,” says Melcher with RMU. Instead, it’s “‘What are ways we can engage this new generation of student-athletes?’”
That doesn’t mean money isn’t an issue in collegiate esports.
Colleges have the costs of renovating spaces, upgrading tech and paying for coaches and scholarships, while students have the pressure of competing for limited scholarship funds.
Only 2% of high school athletes receive a scholarship to play a traditional sport in college, and experts estimate the odds of getting an esports scholarship are even lower.
Chang had no idea gaming scholarships even existed.
All she knew is her son likely wouldn’t qualify for an academic scholarship, given how much time he was spending in his room, hunched in front of his computer, alone, cursing at the screen when something went wrong.
She begged him to study more, sure she was failing him as a parent.
Her outlook finally shifted with one phone call. Her sister had taken Tang to his first major tournament in Texas and called to describe Tang’s face when he entered the Austin Convention Center.
“Parents need to understand the opportunity is there and will grow over time but be measured and make sure there’s real-life balance.”
“When he saw these people, it was like he was home,” her sister told her.
What Chang had seen as isolation was just a different type of connection — a virtual gaming community that had embraced her son and his quirky personality.
“That, for a parent, especially for a parent of a child who doesn’t have very many good friends, that trumped everything,” Chang said.
She vowed to stop parenting out of fear, and embraced the idea that gaming might actually be creating — not derailing — Tang’s future.
The shift was well-timed, as it was at DreamHack Austin 2017 that Tang placed within the top 16 players, which led to him being scouted and signed by a professional esports team.
For the next two years, Tang played Hearthstone professionally, and Chang watched her son blossom as he negotiated contracts, traveled to tournaments and dealt with setbacks, including the financial collapse of two different teams — while still managing to finish high school.
For parents whose kids are convinced professional gaming is their future too, experts encourage them to stay involved and help their child stay balanced. That means outside play, physical exercise, face-to-face interaction, healthy eating, sufficient sleep and appropriate breaks from technology. Young players can overspecialize and burn out on esports, just like they can with any physical sport.
Parents also need a way to gauge their child’s claims of awesomeness.
Take them to local tournaments (your gaming kid will know how to find them) and see what happens. If they win every tournament, maybe it’s time to check out the NACE website, look for schools that match their academic interests and call the coach to gauge the actual chances for a scholarship.
On the other hand, if they lose every game but still love esports, parents can encourage their child to consider game design, computer science or other hobbies/majors related to gaming, but not actual competition.
“Parents need to understand the opportunity is there and will grow over time,” says Melcher, “but be measured and make sure there’s real-life balance.”
A new dream
On a recent Tuesday, Tang, 18, sits in front of a computer in the basement of the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering building, Hearthstone on the screen.
His face is stoic, but an occasional boyish smile slips through as he describes how he got here.
“Esports is completely responsible for me going to a school as high caliber as Utah. It was never something that I ever considered doing growing up.”
While at a tournament in Salt Lake City in late 2017, he ran into Runyan, who was impressed with his game play and struck up a conversation.
“Have you ever considered going to the U of U?” Runyan asked Tang, then a high school senior. “We have a varsity esports program and we’re recruiting for next year.”
After several visits to the university, lots of paperwork, and a signing ceremony outside his high school, Tang became the first esports athlete recruited by a Power Five school.
The moment was sweet for Chang, who knew her son was leaning toward taking a gap year, or attending a community college closer to home.
“Esports is completely responsible for me going to a school as high caliber as Utah,” Tang says simply. “It was never something that I ever considered doing growing up.”
As a teen who hated high school, college was just another required step, not something to be excited about. Yet today, as Tang prepares for his upcoming sophomore year at the University of Utah, there’s plenty to look forward to.
Utah’s Hearthstone team finished fourth in the nation last year, and is hoping to place even higher this season. They’ve identified some talented young players they’d like to recruit and tryouts are at the end of the month.
Tang also recently changed his major from game design to history, with the goal of becoming a high school teacher. He wants to mentor students — especially the gamer kids — the way Mr. Hampton mentored and supported him during high school.
He’ll tell kids about how gaming helped him see the world and then paved his way to college.
But it took sacrifices.
He’ll tell them about how some of his friendships weakened because he was practicing hundreds of hours a month. And streaming his game play on Twitch? It’s more overwhelming and stressful than they might think.
As far as going pro and playing one game forever? Don’t bank on that, he’ll counsel them, the industry is far too unstable. In fact, his own professional esports career is on hold while he’s in school and playing collegiate esports.
Will he ever go back?
“If it happens, it happens,” Tang says simply.
For now, he’s content to wear his red Ute jersey, “Ryder” across the back, attend his “intro to teaching” class next semester and soak up undergraduate life.
“Now that I’m here, I think this is where I’m meant to be,” he says. “This was something I was meant to do.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the University of Utah has been asked to join NACE several times, but currently remains unaffiliated with NACE.