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The Rapid Rise of Esports

Health, Safety, and Well-being Student-Athlete Technology
September 24, 2019 Brent Marsh Dennis Hall


The preeminent textbooks on the history of higher education provide a valuable overview of the rise of college athletics. The timeline spans decades as sports tended to evolve slowly and rhythmically, maintaining that pace into the modern era of mega conferences with highly lucrative broadcasting contracts. While college basketball and football, for example, have experienced their own measured evolutions, the latest trend in college athletics—esports—is nothing short of a revolution. Indeed, this rapidly growing student involvement phenomenon was virtually nonexistent on campuses less than a decade ago.

Esports, short for electronic sports, involves competitive video gaming as an individual or a team member across a wide variety of games that are played on personal computers and console systems such as PlayStation or Xbox. Today’s most common video game titles include CounterStrike, Global Offensive, Dota 2, Heroes of the Storm, League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League, Super Smash Bros., and more. Gamers can compete in a specific locale via local area network tournaments or through Internet connections with virtually anyone in the world. Esports competitions can be viewed through web-based platforms such as Twitch and YouTube. Network television companies, such as ESPN, are also joining the action. Global viewership of the 2017 League of Legends (LOL) world championship drew an estimated 106 million spectators, comparable to the NFL’s 2018 Super Bowl.

If this sounds unfamiliar, you are not alone. According to a March 2018 Washington Post article, roughly 75 percent of American adults neither play nor watch video games. Conversely, 73 percent of 14- to 21-years-olds are gamers. Small wonder, then, that esports interest is surging on college campuses and that administrators are taking note, particularly when considering the recruitment opportunity in the traditional student market.

The growth curve of collegiate esports is nothing short of astounding. It is widely acknowledged that Robert Morris University Illinois (RMU) led the way in starting "varsity" esports in June 2014, formalizing a competitive program from what, on most campuses, had been relegated to student organizations or simply groups of friends playing video games in the residence halls. In July 2016, the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NAC Esports) was formed as a subsidiary of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) with a humble membership of seven institutions. By February 2018, NAC Esports’ membership had grown to 63 institutions and to roughly 140 institutions by March 2019. Far more institutions have launched or are exploring esports programs, and no doubt many will join NAC Esports as it evolves and institutions seek structure and guidance in program development and administration.

Launching a Program

As a cultural phenomenon, esports is expanding at a breakneck pace. Game developers, advertisers, event venues, and many other entities are seeking to cash in on this rapidly growing industry. Higher education is not generally accustomed to such a rapid rate of change, so campus leaders are left with a few important questions regarding esports: Are we in or out? If we are in, how and where do we start?

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