Imagine a college campus where thousands of fans come to the big game on Friday night. Tickets are sold, merchandise is worn, chants are in the air, and the parking lot is full. After every big play, the crowd roars. Historic division rivals compete with each other like they have for years upon years, locked in an eternal battle for supremacy over each other. Imagine a world where the biggest events on university campuses are not football games, but a League of Legends tournament. The truth is, such a future is not as far out as one may think.
The rise of collegiate esports can be partially attributed to the rise of esports as a whole. The rise of Twitch streaming and huge esports leagues throwing around millions of dollars firmly implanted esports into the mainstream in the 2010s. The timing could not have been better – esports growth was significantly accelerated by the global year of isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Headlines were made in 2021 when the Olympic Council of Asia announced esports competitions would take place in the Asian Games of 2022. As it stands now, the current market size of esports globally is estimated to be between $1.45-$1.72 billion, and is projected to be three times that size by 2030.
Perhaps one of the more interesting phenomena we see in the world of professional esports is that of age. While there is much debate about why esports professionals are so young, the fact is that many of them are college-aged or even younger. It seems to be somewhat generational – GenZers grew up with ubiquitous gaming-grade hardware and AAA game titles everywhere they looked. Gaming is often seen not just as a competitive space, but as a space for socializing and entertainment. The debate between competitive and casual gaming is as old as the gaming industry itself, but in the case of collegiate gaming, there is room for both. Many schools have grassroots-level gaming and esports clubs run by and for students. These can take the shape of competitive teams or simple get-togethers where gamers can enjoy each others’ company.
It is no surprise, then, that as competitive gamers begin to take their gaming habits along with them to university, the universities themselves have taken notice. Not only is there a lot of student interest, but from the university’s perspective, there is a much lower cost of entry than there is for a traditional sport such as football or basketball. All you need to set up an esports arena is a few gaming PCs, a room, and an internet connection. Colleges have begun to institutionalize esports at a rapid rate, with over 175 schools offering varsity esports (many of them with scholarships) according to the National Association of Collegiate Esports.
For many top players, joining a collegiate esports team can be much less risky than trying to play for a professional team. Not only is it easier to play for a collegiate team, but you are far less likely to fall victim to a predatory contract. Furthermore, in the ultra-competitive esports scene that currently exists, players may find it much simpler to just play it safe and go to school instead of shooting for the stars. If this trend continues, though, there won’t be much of a difference. Maybe soon the highest paid public employee in every US state will be a college esports coach. Maybe soon every young gamer will be able to look at collegiate players as someone to look up to, so that one day, they too can have a crowd chanting their name when they nail headshot after headshot after headshot.
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