Competitive gaming tournaments have been around about as long as video games themselves. With the rise of professional esports in the 2000s, it was only a matter of time before esports made its way into universities. Now, colleges across the United States are embracing games and competition, offering their own programs. An esports scholarship might even help you get into a college that you may not have been accepted into otherwise. But esports still faces many challenges, particularly at the collegiate level.
JAMES PARKINSON: I have to admit, I don’t know much about esports. I’ve never really been a competitive person and I’m certainly not the most skilled player. But if I was a slightly younger version of myself with some talent for a particular game, I would absolutely try to get the most out of it. While the high end of professional esports with millions of dollars in prize money is beyond most people, being really good at games still offers some advantages, like a college scholarship.
VICTORIA WINN: I wasn't really intending on getting into esports or anything. But I really liked the game, I played it a lot. I ended up getting a high rank and stuff. And I heard about high school tournaments. So then I started joining High School tournaments. And then from there, I started an esports club in my high school. And doing that I found out about collegiate esports.
JAMES PARKINSON: This is Victoria Winn, who loved playing Overwatch, and realised she was pretty good at it.
VICTORIA WINN: I play on the UCI Overwatch team as their main support, and I'm majoring in Computer Game Science at UCI.
JAMES PARKINSON: Collegiate esports has grown significantly across the United States since 2014. UCI, the University of California, Irvine is just one of over one hundred universities to offer an esports program. Some schools are beginning to provide full scholarships to join their esports teams, but even partial scholarships, which are more common, can still go a long way in helping people pursue a degree. And there are lots of other benefits that esports can bring to a student’s time at college.
VICTORIA WINN: I feel like being on the esports team has actually really helped me balance college stuff, which would seem kind of strange, because it's obviously more on my plate. But I guess like, having it there on the plate makes it so I'm forced to actually get my stuff together, get everything organised, so that I make sure I'm able to balance all the homework and projects on top of playing esports.
JAMES PARKINSON: Revenue for the global esports industry is expected to surpass $1 billion in 2021. But esports still faces many challenges, especially at the collegiate level.
JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.
JAMES PARKINSON: Competitive gaming tournaments have been around about as long as video games themselves. The 2000s saw professional esports begin to emerge, which has matured into the global industry we have today. It was only a matter of time before esports made its way into universities, and now colleges across the United States are embracing esports.
MARK DEPPE: Our program, we say we launched it on September 23, 2016. So we are about a month away from celebrating our five year anniversary. And then we spent probably the 15 months before we officially launched, kind of in vision creation, ideation and putting the whole plan together. So the planning started in the summer of 2015, and then we opened our arena and had athletes on campus, fall of 2016.
JAMES PARKINSON: This is Mark Deppe.
MARK DEPPE: And I'm the Director for Esports at the University of California in Irvine.
MARK DEPPE: UC Irvine is a large public institution in Orange County of Southern California. We're part of the University of California system - same with Berkeley and UCLA, other schools you probably have heard of. Our university is about 55 years old, so we're very young for a university. But in that short time, we've become a really prestigious research university. I think the last ranking I saw, we were number seven, in terms of public universities in the country. So UCI is very highly regarded, and we have about 30,000 students. And so yeah, we're getting up there in size and prestige.
JAMES PARKINSON: College esports programs have been established pretty rapidly over the last six or seven years, as more schools have jumped on board. But for early adopters like UCI, it was a whole process to get their program approved.
MARK DEPPE: There's a lot that goes into building support for something like our program. I will say education is the first piece, just letting people know what esports are, what the ecosystem looks like. And then finding supporters on your campus. I will say, UCI is a young school. I will say I like to say we're not burdened by tradition, like other older universities. And so I think we have this belief that our culture is still being shaped and we're able to kind of still do new things. And so our campus has, I'd say a tolerance for trying new things and new ideas. And when we started our esports program, it was a very new idea. Nobody knew what esports were, they didn't know how to spell it. And so education was the first part. And then yeah, building consensus around, “Should we do it?”, finding compelling evidence. So we did surveys, both of students - I guess we surveyed the student body. Then we looked for resources, we needed space for a facility, we needed money for scholarships and salaries. And so as we did some exploration, we were building a business plan. And I would say within six months of the first whispered ideas, in summer of 2015, we had a business plan, we had a large sponsorship offer on a piece of paper. And we were able to bring that to university leaders. And they blessed our idea to kind of pilot an esports program. And we spent the next nine months building it, recruiting students and creating what we've created.
James Parkinson: How does that compare to other colleges in the country and where esports are at, at the college level in general, across the States?
MARK DEPPE: You know, universities look at esports very differently depending on your location and the status of your university. UCI, as I mentioned, is I'd say a highly successful university. We have well over 100,000 applications every fall, so esports for us represent, in my opinion, an opportunity for us to distinguish ourselves from other elite peer universities. It's a chance to be special, to be new, to be a school of first choice. Most schools doing esports I put into this category of small private liberal arts universities, mostly in the Midwest. And many of those universities are in a very different situation. They've seen declining enrolment for many years. And a lot of their programs and directors are challenged with recruiting dozens of students to come to their university on an esports scholarships. And so they might get a $2000 or $4,000 scholarship, but are expected to pay the rest of the $30-$40,000 cost of attendance. And given declining enrolment, those are students the school would not otherwise get. And so there's a business calculation for those universities. So most, I'd say the vast majority of schools in the US doing esports fall into that broad bucket. But there are some schools that are doing it to expand the reputation of the university, to do new things, to support students’ interests, and kind of be the future of competition. And so, yeah, that's kind of how UCI falls in. So we’re the far end of the spectrum that's really focused on doing something unique. And also, I'd say there's a high focus on student retention and support, and graduating our students, and kind of living up to the expectations of any student at UCI.
JAMES PARKINSON: High school programs are also very new, so unlike many traditional sports, there aren’t the same kind of pathways into college for esports players. But collegiate programs are providing new opportunities for people who may not be eligible for athletic or academic scholarships. Here’s Victoria.
VICTORIA WINN: I didn't really play sports or anything. I'm not a sports person. But I ended up really enjoying playing esports. And that was something I could do without having to do a lot of physical activity. You know, that's not really my whole thing.
VICTORIA WINN: So it's different from college to college, obviously. But for us at UCI, it starts off with an application, which is just general things like what your ranking is, and if you've ever played on other teams before, what's your competitive experience in Overwatch. And then if it looks like you have the good qualifications, like your ranks high enough, then you go into the tryouts. And that's like, a couple of days playing with the other people who are trying out. Just mixing the teams up, and the coaches look to see who's performing well, and who they might want on the team. And if you pass that, then you have an interview where they just get to see what you're like as a person, and see if you'd be a good fit for the team. And then from there, you know if you're on the team or not.
MARK DEPPE: We do have some people who aspire to play professionally. I will say we've probably had two or three times as many people who have come from professional esports. But I would say something that makes us unique, and something we've had to learn is that our best candidates for our scholarships are students who want to earn a degree. They already see a value in coming to a university, maybe their parents are very excited to send them to university, maybe they've already tried professional esports, and they're like, “How do I re-insert myself into a career track that I want to be on?”. For us, every student that's been on our scholarship has graduated, or can come back and finish their degree at any moment. So you have to want to be a college student. And if you don't, our program’s not a good fit for you. There are schools that kind of look at esports athletes as, I guess more of a commodity, and they might recruit you, you might play for a season, you might be there for six months, then you might leave. And we've never seen that or our program, we've never had anyone leave for another university. We really want to support our athletes, help them earn their degree and help them achieve whatever they want to do afterwards.
MARK DEPPE: I would say a large portion of our athletes haven't played a lot of other sports. We certainly have had some that have played water polo, and soccer, and football, and track. But I'd say most of them haven't played traditional sports. And when you look at high schools and youth sports, it really does kind of require a certain amount of drive, and athleticism, and coordination. And that just doesn't necessarily fit with everybody. And I think esports opens the door to a different group of people who still want to compete, and be on a team, and earn those life skills. And now, you can get a full or partial scholarship that will supplement your education. And we're actually able to factor in esports into the admissions process. And so it might even get you into a school that you might not have been able to enrol in before. So I think esports represents how we're going to compete in the long term future. I'd say most professional jobs are not throwing a javelin, or shooting a ball, or swinging a bat. It's really about cognitive performance, it's about creativity, about teamwork, about quick decision making. And those are all the skills you need to be a successful esports athlete. So I really think we're training and really selecting for the most important skills that they will use in the rest of their lives.
JAMES PARKINSON: UCI’s program currently offers two games - League of Legends and Overwatch.
VICTORIA WINN: So Overwatch is 6v6, it's an FPS. And you're fighting over control of an objective, whether that's just like a point that’s stationary, or a cart that's moving and you're trying to defend or attack the cart. So those are the game modes. And then there are three roles in the game, which are Tank, DPS and Support. And when you're playing in like a team, and it's not just like, you know, the ranked stuff, those roles get further split. So, Tank gets split into Main Tanks, and Off Tanks. And Support gets split into Main Supports and Flex Support. Yeah, so Tanks are there to create space for the team, to help them push forward. And then DPS are there to get kills, and Supports are there to support the rest of their team so they can do those things well.
JAMES PARKINSON: Esports are serious business, and even at the college level, athletes take a very professional approach to their role in the team. It’s not just about practice and teamwork. Their mental and physical wellbeing are a priority too.
VICTORIA WINN: I think people don't realise how much actually goes into being on an Esports team. It's kind of easy to think like, “Oh, I'm just playing video games all the time. And I just need to play video games forever and then I'm going to be good, and that's what it's like to plan a team”. But it's not really like that, and playing solo queue on your own is very, very different from playing in a team environment.
VICTORIA WINN: Because I've never played traditional sports, I kind of want that teamwork aspect of it, being able to compete with other people and supporting each other that way. It's cool to get coaching in a video game, and being able to improve and focus on that. And then there's also the other things that maybe I didn't realise would be so beneficial. Like having someone to help me get exercises done and learn how to do that, and getting better nutrition, and all that stuff, which you don't really think about when you're joining an Esports team, but have all been really helpful and beneficial outside of the game itself.
VICTORIA WINN: We have an exercise physiologist on our team. And when we were in person, we had weekly workouts. So we would go to the gym and work out together as a team. And we would also get instructions on how we can improve our diet, and improve our sleeping patterns as well.
VICTORIA WINN: So normally, our practices were in the evenings. So we would have classes, and then we'd have our scrims in the evenings. And it kind of depends how often we practice. If it is finals week or something, then we're not practicing as much and sometimes we're not practicing at all. Because it is academics first. I mean, we're going to college right? So that comes first. But if it's just kind of like a normal week, then we might practice like every day and then we'd have our tournament matches on the weekends. Like one or two matches a week, depending on how the schedule is going.
JAMES PARKINSON: Despite all of this, esports players aren’t considered athletes within the broader college system, which means they miss out on some of the benefits afforded to traditional sports. That’s next on Gameplay.
JAMES PARKINSON: On the 30th of April, 2019 the NCAA declined to bring esports under its regulation. As a governing body, the National Collegiate Athletic Association oversees student athletes and their respective programs and competitions. But this decision left the governance of esports to universities and the National Association of Collegiate Esports. The NCAA’s reasoning for the rejection included concerns over violent content in certain video games, and that if esports were classified as athletics, it would require compliance with Title IX regulations. Here’s Mark Deppe.
MARK DEPPE: Yeah, so Title IX is part of the Education Code passed a few decades ago. And everything in higher ed, it’s illegal to discriminate based on any protected category, gender, certainly been one of them. But Title IX went a step further and required people that receive federal funds for schools, which is pretty much every university, because every university is processing financial aid - federal financial aid. And it essentially says you have to create equal opportunities, and put enough and equal resources into both men's and women's sports. And so, sports have a higher bar to meet for equity than other activities on a campus. And so you'll see that athletic programs across the country have the same number of scholarships - or very close - it has to be in proportion, I think, to the student body at that university. And so if you have a football team with 60 men on it, you have to have several teams that are all women, to kind of balance that out. Esports, as of now, has not been identified by the Department of Education, or really any federal group as part of sports. Cheerleading is not part of sports, some universities have tried to make cheerleading count as part of sports, because it's predominantly female. And therefore, if you give them resources, you can offset that with male scholarships. So, at this time, we are broadly affected by Title IX, in that we cannot discriminate based on gender. But we are not at this elevated bar that athletics is under, that says we have to create equal resources and opportunities for women. And they kind of have to go hand-in-hand because I am not actually allowed to have scholarships for purely women, because that would be discriminating based on gender. So you have to have both of those go together. You have to require equity at the same time you remove the barrier that prevents you from selecting based on it, because yeah, it would be illegal otherwise.
JAMES PARKINSON: As of March 2021, around 90% of collegiate esports players were men, which would cause some problems for the NCAA in adhering to Title IX rules. The gender imbalance isn’t exclusive to collegiate esports either. Women are also underrepresented at the professional level. This is despite the fact that 41% of people who play games in the United States are women. That number in Australia, by the way, is about 47%.
MARK DEPPE: Yeah, I would say the vast majority of esports athletes, if you take a quick look are certainly male. And that's been our experience with our program. I think it also skews a lot of Asian American and white men, obviously. Those are the players you'll see on our teams. We certainly aspire to attract a more diverse player base, but there's just a lot of barriers out there for women, and I guess underrepresented folks.
JAMES PARKINSON: At UCI, Victoria Winn is currently the only woman in their esports program, and there’s several reasons why that disparity exists across all of esports.
VICTORIA WINN: I think there's a lot of factors that go into it. There's women who are just getting into games now, and they don't have the experience other people might, where they've been playing games since childhood. And then there's, once you start playing the game, then you end up facing harassment from other people who are sexist, and being mean to you. And that's like levels of toxicity that other people aren't receiving. You do get it when you play by yourself in solo queue and ranked, and it's kind of difficult because there's not really any good options for you. Like, once that happens you kind of just mute, report and hope they move on from it. It's not like you can say anything back to them, it kind of just makes the situation worse, or at least in my experience that has. There's trying to find teams, and it's harder to find teams as a woman when everyone else is not, you know? There's the additional anxiety that you're going to get, because when there's so few women playing at the highest levels, and being role models and competing, then you're going to feel more anxious when you're playing, and obviously that's going to make you perform worse. Because you might feel like you have to you know, there's a lot of pressure on you to perform well because you might feel like you're representing all women everywhere, which isn't something that male player male players would feel.
MARK DEPPE: I do believe men and women can compete on an equal playing field with equal opportunity, equal encouragement, I think there's a little bit of data to already support that. And that's what we aspire to. That's what we want. But there's two big hairy challenges of improving online behaviour, which has always been an issue. And then also, how do we generate more interest? And how do we get really amazing, cognitive performing women and non-binary folks to be interested in games encourage them to play? So those are the two big factors. How do we solve that? I think, instead of waiting for the pipeline to emerge, I would like to see more of a Title IX like approach, where we're already creating opportunities for other folks that we want to include in the esports world. So women's only tournaments, girls only tournaments, girls only spaces. I think that would be great to create role models, it'd be great for young people to know that there's a space waiting for them, there's a team they can play on, that they'll feel safe in. The challenge to that one is it's not legal right now. The other challenge is women want to play - a lot of people want to play, and they want to compete with the best. And so there's a belief in this meritocracy in esports, that you just want to play with the best of the best, and the best should win. And if you created women's only teams, you'd be creating this two tiered system, very similar to traditional athletics, where women's esports are just viewed in a lower prestigious level than men's esports, or open esports, essentially. So that's one of the major reasons we haven't done it. And I will also say, finally, that we've we've asked women about participating, we've had some really highly ranked people at UCI that have had conversations with women, when we were building our program, and they didn't want a women's only team. So it's a very complex issue. My thoughts have evolved, but right now, I would like to see us create opportunities for women to exist, to see themselves reflected at highest levels on scholarship teams. So that would require some sort of legislation to empower that.
JAMES PARKINSON: There are some women's only competitions in professional esports, but they’re not the end goal.
VICTORIA WINN: Yeah, I think right now, people are looking at women's teams, and seeing them as kind of like a stepping stone to more equal teams. Like, I'm gonna compare this to a different game, like we're seeing Valorant having a lot of women's only tournaments. And I think those are good for women who want to compete. But it's not like the end result that we want, obviously. The goal isn't to have men's tournaments and women's tournaments. But hopefully, these women's tournaments will help more women want to compete, feel comfortable, competing, get them started on some things so that they enter these women's teams, they do good there, and then they enter the open tournaments, and then they can start building on from there.
JAMES PARKINSON: There is one advantage though that college esports has over athletic programs. Because esports isn’t designated as athletics, players are allowed to earn money. This has been a long term struggle for sports under the NCAA, which classify student athletes as amateurs, not professionals. That classification remains in place, but after years of people calling for the rules to change, the NCAA did just that in 2021. Now, student athletes are allowed to profit off of their name, image and likeness. Esports athletes are already afforded this right, but unlike those other sports, they can also earn prize money.
MARK DEPPE: When we do win tournaments or prizing, our athletes do get to keep all of that, assuming the pricing is intended for students. There's a couple tournaments here and there that want to give the university money for winning. But those are more of the exception, not the standard. So our athletes are often winning several $1,000 more on top of their scholarship.
MARK DEPPE: So I've always been very proud that our athletes can profit off their own success and intelligence and skill. I do think we need to put a little thought into how do we put some safe guardrails around it? I will say we have not had any of our athletes get approached by a brand to represent them, but that could happen. And I wouldn't have an issue with it, unless that brand conflicted with one of our existing sponsorship relationships. And making sure the athlete knew that while they're competing on our scholarship, for our team, that they're representing the people that we represent. So it hasn't been an issue yet. I don't see it being an issue in the near future. But for now, just kind of having it be open is a fine place to be.
JAMES PARKINSON: Collegiate programs will continue to play an important role in the growth and maturity of esports. But if esports are going to rival those more traditional athletic programs, there’s still some way to go.
MARK DEPPE: I think for esports, to be bigger and more well regarded, I think more large universities need to invest into it. And I think that's a challenge because they're already heavily invested into traditional athletics. And I really think they play a very similar role for the university, in terms of community engagement, Alumni engagement, school spirit. And so I think there's going to be a little bit of a struggle for some of the schools who are burdened by tradition, who have 100 year legacy and football, or all this investment into other sports, for them to pivot into what I believe is, like I said, the future of competition. So I think a lot of that has to happen. The other thing that will move them along is for media rights companies to start making investment, and brands and sponsors to start investing in esports. If they see people watching it, the money will follow. And then I think university interest will certainly follow. If their new TV media rights deal needs to have esports in it, and esports has to hit certain metrics, I think that will change the ballgame. And I think that's on track, if that's going to happen. We see pro esports teams not yet making the same kind of per view dollar that other sports are making. And so brands are starting to shift and realise that esports is a really good investment for marketing dollar value. And so, I think all our programs need to kind of be re-evaluated as times and interest in things change. So that’s what I think.
JAMES PARKINSON: Victoria says she’d like to see the games industry do more to support the collegiate scene. And while dreams of going professional in esports are nice to think about, right now, she’s just happy to be part of the Overwatch team at UCI and remains focused on getting through college.
VICTORIA WINN: I'm really glad that I got into esports. Just from the friends alone, that I made through esports, I really appreciate it. There's like lots of people that I wouldn't have met otherwise, some of my best friends are from playing on teams in high school, and things like that. I think it's really cool to kind of be on the forefront of this, where it's kind of new and being able to be a role model for other people is very cool. It's helped me organise my life in college. I exercise a lot more than I would have, had I not been in esports. Yeah, there's a lot of good things that came out of it.
JAMES PARKINSON: Many thanks to Victoria Winn and Mark Deppe. If you’d like to find out more about the esports program at UCI, just head to esports.uci.edu. We also have links for further reading on this episode’s page on our website, gameplay.co.
JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, and our artwork is by Keegan Sanford. Additional music in this episode comes from Epidemic Sound and Breakmaster Cylinder.
JAMES PARKINSON: You can follow the show on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at ‘gameplaypodcast’. We have a Discord as well. And if you’re enjoying the show, please tell your friends about Gameplay and help us to reach more listeners like you. For all the links, transcripts and more, gameplay.co is where to go. Thanks for listening.
• Learn more about UCI Esports at esports.uci.edu
• What it's like to go to college on an esports scholarship
• Why colleges are betting big on video games
• How esports can save colleges
• Are esports sports? Overwatch players sure act the part
• AP study: Nearly 90% of esports scholarships going to men
• Esports Is Getting Bigger Every Year — So Where Are All The Women?
• Gender in Esports research: a literature review
• NCAA tables possibility of overseeing esports
• NCAA Will Let College Athletes Earn Money Off Of Name And Likeness