College esports programs entice students amid greater administrative buy-in

by Robin Mosley

When Grey Peterson helped create an esports club at a college in the Pacific Northwest over a half decade ago, he didn’t receive institutional support for his efforts at the time.

Things have changed a lot in the past few years.

“I think a lot of them didn't understand it. They thought it was a lot of work,” Peterson said in a recent interview with Nerd Street. “And now, at this point, it's become so big across so many games, and they're hearing about it secondhand. I don't really think they have a choice. I think it was either you adopt into esports and make a program ... or you just get left behind.”

In other words, colleges have been “forced into it,” said Peterson, but “they still, to this day, aren't very supportive … You're getting a lot more younger millennials getting into upper administration, who I think are able to liaison between students and people who have passion for esports, to the upper administrators and explain it to them. Because a lot of the time, they really only talk in money, and you can show them the money.”

Over the course of the 2010s, universities across the United States have been creating esports programs, clubs and teams. In 2019, there were more than 100 varsity esports programs available for students, and now, more than 170 are part of the National Association of Collegiate Esports. Some esports teams like Drexel and Rowan are even in Nerd Street’s neck of the woods. Although some of these programs are still in their infancy, they’ve had the desired effect: to entice students, put butts in seats and increase tuition dollars.

For years, colleges across the United States have seen their student enrollment dwindle, but as schools jump on the esports bandwagon, students, professors and administrators have felt some growing pains.

Esports as the money-making machine for admissions

“I think colleges, by and large, use their institution to make money, right? And the way they make money is to get more customers, and their customers are students,” said Katherine Amoukhteh, the founder of Esports College & Career Pathways.

Amoukhteh is not the only industry leader who has noticed that institutions are entering the esports realm to make money. Dr. Joey Gawrysiak, Shenandoah University’s director of esports, sees it too. But he sees nothing wrong with using esports as a money-maker to entice students.

“Colleges and universities have to keep finding ways to bring current and future students to their university,” he said. “The lifeblood is student tuition. There's no way around that. I mean, why hide behind it? That's not a bad thing. It's just the fact of the matter.”

University staff see the popularity of esports and the money it could make, but without understanding the cultural draw, they’re unable to develop programming that truly understands students. Dr. Jeffrey Levine, Drexel University’s assistant clinical professor of sports business, said that many esports programs are controlled by people who don’t know the first thing about it: “The background and demographics of a lot of decision-makers, historically speaking, are from communities that didn't grow up with video games.”

Some college students have taken it into their own hands to create esports clubs, only receiving support from administrators once there was money to be made. Jeremy Green, a current member of the esports club Peterson co-created years ago, said, “Before we were even a club or anything of that nature, we were able to grow our student body through flyers, through outreach. [We had] hundreds of people in our Discord server, with active people interested as well.”

The students did all that on their own. “It was very challenging starting off with very little administrative support and no advisors,” Green said. “We eventually found advisors and faculty who were interested in helping us show the administrators that it was something that should and could be taken seriously at the university level.”

Bursting the esports career bubble

Despite the growing interest and push by students, questions about how to best serve these students academically and professionally and how to make these programs legitimate are all key to integrating esports on campus.

Esports at the competitive level is high-risk, high-reward, and like traditional sports, very few players will achieve fame and fortune. Over the course of my interviews, I noticed a pattern in the responses from students and professors alike -- colleges should address the risky nature of esports by creating academic programming to support other specializations, like marketing, journalism, livestream and video production, and other related skills to help improve student success.

“I don't think if you want to be a player, a collegiate program [will help], unless you're going to a specific school that is competing in Tier 2 scenes, like academy scenes with already established organizations,” Peterson said. “If you want to use a college esports program to get into esports, the best thing to do for job security is to go into [video] production. It gives you all the viewpoints, to an extent.”

Many other specializations tied to esports can prepare students for the world of work. This tactic also allows professors and staff to convince more cautious administrators and develop pathways into esports that will ultimately help universities stay relevant.

Although there’s student interest, some parents find the idea of esports to be pretty “out there,” since there’s no guarantee of a job. Of course, there is no guarantee of a job with any area of study, but this push for job security is ingrained in students.

“I have students that come in and they'll look at me and say, ‘So when I graduate with my degree in four years in esports, can you guarantee me I'll have a job?’ I say, ‘Hell no.’ I wouldn't do that for anybody in any discipline. I would never guarantee a job when they graduate,” Gawrysiak said. “I will guarantee you I will give you every opportunity to take advantage of those chances to help prepare you to get a job. That's my job, is to give you all these opportunities. Your job is to take advantage of those opportunities so that you get those experiences that prepare you to be in a position to get a job when you graduate.”

Considerations for future esports programs

While institutions like Shenandoah and Drexel have more established esports degree programs, East Tennessee University is also creating educational content via an esports certificate that students can earn as a supplement to older, more established majors.

Dr. Natalie Smith, associate professor of sport & recreation management at East Tennessee University, said: “It made the most sense for us to start something a little bit more low-key than a minor [and] to go with the certificate first, with the idea that we will get into the minor next.”

Her university, like many others, is testing whether esports attracts interest, and they’ve seen some success with their students supplementing traditional studies with the certificate.

Although it may come across as hesitation to go all out on implementing esports majors or minors, it’s a standard procedure for university systems trying out new programs. It’s common for schools to introduce programs incrementally with certificate programs, clubs and minors before going all in with majors, especially if specialized faculty must be hired. Though interested professors and students are on board, without the support from top administrators, unregulated esports is the wild wild west.

Even regulated esports will have its issues. As esports grows, it could turn out to be just as exploitative as traditional sports, which should cause anyone who cares about esports to be concerned. Smith is one professor who cares, and she noted that without proper governance, anything can happen: “I am a big critic of the structures we have put forth for college athletics and the exploitation of unpaid labor. So my fear is that we'll end up that way [in esports], because institutions generally tend to mimic each other.”

Where will college esports programming take students? Will eager college esports enthusiasts be taken advantage of, or will they soar to new heights? Just like anything else about going to college, it all depends.

Lead photo credit: Shenandoah University

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