College esports have come a long way since Robert Morris University became the first school in the United States to offer esports scholarships in 2014. In 2016, the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) formed to promote and support the developing varsity esports ecosystem and has grown to be the largest member association and hosts the largest league, NACE Starleague. Other organizations like the National Esports Collegiate Conference (NECC) also hold high-level competitions and so do publishers like Riot Games, Psyonix and Activision Blizzard.
Which schools have had the best collegiate esports programs in the U.S. and Canada this year in terms of competitive success? Last year, Nerd Street sought to answer this question for professional esports organizations, and this year we’re doing the same for college esports. Just like at the pro level, it’s not possible to take into account every single competition, but to measure the best of the best schools in 2023, the ranking takes into account the following high-level competitions:
- Riot College League of Legends Championship (CLOL)
- Riot College VALORANT Championship (CVAL)
- Psyonix Collegiate Rocket League National and World Championships (CRL)
- College COD League Championship (CCL)
- Blizzard Overwatch Collegiate Championship Series Playoffs
- FACEIT CS:GO Collegiate Championship
- NACE Finals
- NECC Nationals
The NACE and NECC competitions this spring involved League of Legends, VALORANT, Overwatch, Rocket League and Rainbow Six Siege. The NACE Finals also included Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Call of Duty and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. For both NACE and NECC, only the results for schools competing in the top division in each game were taken into account.
Schools were given point totals for their results in the measured competitions, with the most points for championships and second-place finishes, a few points for top four placements, and a couple points for qualifying for these tournaments.
Spring semesters are over and school’s out for summer, and so far, these schools have had the most successful esports programs this year.
1. Northwood University
Photo credit: Riot Games
Northwood has undoubtedly been the best collegiate esports program so far this year when it comes to competitive success across multiple titles. For context, when compiling point totals across all the competitions that have factored into these rankings, Northwood have more than twice as many points as the next team.
You name the game, and Northwood probably won a championship. The Timberwolves were champions of Riot’s College VALORANT Championship, Blizzard’s Overwatch Collegiate Championship Series and FACEIT’S CS:GO Collegiate Spring Championship. In Rocket League, Northwood was the champion of the CRL Spring Championship and the NACE Spring Finals. In Call of Duty, the Michigan school pulled off another double in winning both the NACE Spring Finals and the College COD Championship. At NECC Nationals, the Timberwolves picked up titles in Overwatch and Rocket League. The only final that Northwood reached and lost was NACE’s Smash Ultimate final this spring.
This ranking doesn’t take into account results from last year, but it is worth noting that Northwood won a world championship in VALORANT in December. Northwood won the Red Bull Campus Clutch, a 47-team competition held in Brazil in which Northwood was the sole representative from the United States. Northwood is clearly the powerhouse collegiate esports program in the U.S. right now.
2. Fisher College
Photo credit: Psyonix
Fisher College’s greatest accomplishment this year has come at the CRL World Championship where they finished second to Germany’s Dr. Buhmann Akademie. Chances to compete internationally at the collegiate level are rare, and Fisher came very close to capturing a world title. The Boston school also found a lot of success at NECC Nationals this June. The Falcons won a national title in League of Legends and finished second in Rainbow Six and Overwatch. Fisher, of course, competed in many of the other top collegiate tournaments this spring and picked up top four finishes in the spring championships for College COD and Collegiate Rocket League.
3. St. Clair College
Photo credit: St. Clair
St. Clair College has had an excellent year but is just missing a major championship. The Saints have come closest in NACE’s spring championship tournaments for League of Legends and VALORANT and the NECC Nationals League of Legends championship. The Ontario school finished second in all three of those competitions. St. Clair also had top four finishes in the NACE spring championships for Overwatch, Rocket League and Call of Duty.
4. Oklahoma Christian University
Oklahoma Christian’s esports program has established itself as a force to be reckoned with in VALORANT. OC were both NACE and NECC champions this spring. They beat Carleton in the NECC VALORANT final, but even more impressively, they knocked off Northwood, who were Riot’s CVAL champions just a couple weeks earlier. Oklahoma Christian’s Call of Duty team also had an impressive spring as OC finished second in both the College COD Championship and the NACE Spring Finals for COD.
5. Maryville University
Photo credit: Maryville
Maryville has traditionally made a name for itself in college esports in League of Legends, and that’s been no different in 2023. The three-time CLOL champions were runners-up in this year’s CLOL championship but did win the NACE Spring Finals for League of Legends. Outside of League, the Saints won the NACE Spring Finals in Overwatch and placed among the top four in Blizzard’s Overwatch Collegiate Championship.
6. University of Akron
The Zips mainly have had success in three esports this year. Akron’s Rainbow Six team won a championship at the NECC Nationals. In Rocket League, Akron finished second to Northwood at the CRL Spring Championship, which qualified them for the CRL World Championship. Akron also had some success in VALORANT in qualifying for the CVAL Championship.
7. Illinois State University
The Redbirds didn’t win any major championships this spring, but they did finish second at the Overwatch Collegiate Championship. Illinois State also placed in the top four at the NECC Nationals Rainbow Six tournament and qualified for the Overwatch and Rocket League Nationals tournaments.
8. Drexel University
Photo credit: NACE
The crown jewel of Drexel’s esports program this year as in years past was Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. The Dragons won the NACE Spring Championship in CS:GO and finished second to Northwood (of course) in FACEIT’s Collegiate Spring Championship for North America.
9. Boise State University
The Broncos finished second to Maryville at the NACE Spring Finals for Overwatch. That was Boise State’s top achievement this spring. In addition to this, Boise State put up a couple of strong results in Rocket League with a top four finish at the NACE Spring Finals and qualification to the CRL World Championship.
10. University of St. Thomas
Photo credit: Riot Games
St. Thomas University took home one of the most prestigious collegiate championships of the year in winning Riot’s CLOL championship. It was actually their second straight CLOL championship. St. Thomas also qualified for Riot’s college VALORANT championship and Blizzard’s Overwatch Collegiate Championship. It’s also worth noting that VALORANT pro Jake "jakee" Anderson played for UST before being recruited by Cloud9 this year.
The next 10
These schools weren’t good enough to crack the top 10 but they still put up some worthy accomplishments. James Madison University won the NACE Spring Finals for Rainbow Six, and Stony Brook University was the NACE champ for Smash Ultimate. Winthrop University didn’t win any championships, but they were the only school that placed in the top four at both the College VALORANT Championship and the College League of Legends Championship.
11. James Madison University
12. West Virginia University
13. Columbia College
14. Winthrop University
15. Ohio State University
16. Carleton College
17. Davenport University
18. Stony Brook University
19. Rochester Institute of Technology
20. Blinn College
Colleges and universities interested in partnering with us should contact Nerd Street VP Pete Powell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lead photo credit: Riot Games