With Scholarships, TV Networks Flooding In, Let’s Examine The College Esports Boom

Published: Feb 8, 2017 - Last Updated: Apr 26, 2019

It’s one of the fastest growing sports at colleges, and it doesn’t take place on a field or court. It’s all happening online, and college students can’t get enough of it. Yes, we’re talking about esports!

Competitive gaming has grown exponentially during the past five years on college campuses, with over 25 colleges now offering scholarships.

The history and the present

That trend all started with Robert Morris University in 2013. It was the first college to offer esports as an athletic program, awarding athletic scholarships to students. Other schools, such as University of California at Irvine and Columbia College, quickly followed suit.

UCI will launch its new esports venture later this year, including a 3,500-square-foot esports arena. The arena will be packed with 80 gaming PCs loaded with top esports titles, a webcasting studio, and viewing screens for an audience. Besides offering a venue for regional tournaments and personal training, the arena will be open to the public and students for $4 an hour.

UCI’s arena is backed by iBUYPOWER (which provided all of its gaming PCs) and Riot Games (the studio behind League of Legends). As part of its esports initiative, UCI is offering 10 scholarships, valued at $15,000 each, to its competitive League of Legends players.

“Esports is the future of competition: period,” said UCI Acting Director of Esports Mark Deppe. “It transcends language, geography, race, age, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical ability and many other identities. In five years, many more schools will [have] official programs and more structure will be in place to regulate and provide guidance to schools.

“Esports also has a huge opportunity to learn from the successes and shortcomings of traditional sports and provide a model for collegiate competition in the 21st century,” Deppe added.

Conferences and networks come calling

Media networks and major college conferences have noticed of the expanding esports market and are looking for a piece of the pie. ESPN, PAC-12 Networks, and Turner Broadcasting have been airing live college esports tournaments since 2015. The Big Ten is now stepping up in a huge way.

In a major announcement this past month, Riot Games and the Big Ten Network revealed a new partnership. They will produce a full season of collegiate League of Legends matches. The tournament will feature 12 of the 14 Big Ten schools.

All matches are being broadcast through the BTN2GO network. League of Legends’ esports platform streams one matchup each week. Players will compete weekly, right from their dorm rooms.

The Grand Finals (March 27) will be aired on the Big Ten Network and held at Riot Games’ studio in Los Angeles. The winner will advance to the League of Legends College Championship.

Participating schools include Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue, Rutgers, and Wisconsin. Teams will comprise six players each — five starters and one alternate.

“As a content provider, we have obviously seen the popularity in esports grow,” said BTN Vice President of Marketing Erin Harvego. “Given the demographic that watches, perhaps this could reach a younger viewer who we haven’t reached before.”

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New scholarships and programs

While both sides declined to provide financial terms of the one-year licensing agreement, Riot Collegiate Division President Michael Sherman said the company will produce much of the content and operate the league. Riot and Scholarship America will give each player a $5,000 academic scholarship.

The announcement comes on the heels of the Big Ten’s recent Esports Invitational, which pitted Ohio State against Michigan State. The overwhelming interest from fans led to the Big Ten further expanding its involvement in esports.

Colleges have also begun to create specific classes with esports as the catalyst. Next fall, Emerson College’s new sports communication program will include an introduction to esports and the industry of competitive gaming. This is one of the first academic curriculums incorporating esports.

ESPN airs esports against the Super Bowl

Under a new partnership with Electronic Sports, ESPN decided to test a FIFA 17 esports championship on its main network while the Super Bowl aired on Fox last Sunday.

The Paris Regional Final of the FIFA 17 Ultimate Team Championship, which took place earlier in the day on ESPN3 and ESPN Deportes, was rebroadcast on the main ESPN network, a first for an esports event. Previous esports programming on ESPN, most notably The International Grand Championship for Dota 2, aired exclusively on ESPN2 and ESPN3.

In more recent news, Facebook Live will exclusively stream Heroes of the Dorm this February. This meant Blizzard ending its relationship with ESPN, which aired the Heroes of the Dorm tournaments in 2015 and 2016.

The future for collegiate esports

Ultimately, it doesn’t take a telescope to see the potential for esports at the collegiate level and beyond.

We can easily draw parallels to pee wee football and basketball camps and imagine organized esports’ extension all the way to the youth level.

With the introduction of higher profile, higher payout tournaments, the college scene will naturally grow. Students esports athletes now have scholarships and platforms to showcase their skill level for potential professional careers.

Attracting more players means a deeper pool of talent, leading to higher quality tournaments and matches. This will help promote viewership in a market that currently draws more than 134 million viewers.

Image Credit: Steve Zylius / Flickr.com / CC BY-SA 2.0

Rachel Perry

Since: March 30, 2016

Rachel is an avid gamer whose insatiable desire for all things gaming related has been augmented by the inconceivable growth of eSports and how competitive gaming is viewed. When she’s not busy writing about her favorite games, Rachel can be found playing League of Legends, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, or watching too much Twitch.tv.

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