Future Tense

Even College Esports Are Facing Challenges in the Pandemic

A person plays a video game while wearing orange and black headhones.
Fredrick Tendong/Unsplash

In 2019, 174,000 people descended on the Spodek arena in the quaint Polish town of Katowice to witness the world’s best teams and players compete in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2, StarCraft II, Fortnite, and other esports in the Intel® Extreme Masters World Championship. It became the most successful live esports tournaments series ever held in one location.

Naturally, however, the 2020 global tournament had to be canceled. Such has been the impact of the pandemic on live esports events. It’s a disappointment, given that live esports have become a massive business. Gaming may be based online, but these in-person events have become crucial to the industry’s success.

Yet, in the midst of the pandemic, esports have taken advantage of their nature in other ways. In the spring, as athletic competitions remained on pause, TV networks like ESPN and Fox Sports began airing esports. And on college and university campuses across North America, they continue to thrive, thanks to some ingenuity and flexibility on the part of players and schools.

In 2014, Robert Morris University of Illinois (which is now part of Roosevelt University) became the first college to offer esports scholarships. Six years later, there are 170 member schools of the National Association of Collegiate Esports, and scores more boasting club and social esport programs. Arizona State University, where I am a visiting professor, is about to establish an esports facility under the aegis of its arts, media, and engineering department. (ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) Many of these schools offer scholarships for esports athletes akin to athletic scholarships in traditional sports. Scholarships range from minimal $1,000 to full undergraduate and graduate scholarships offered by Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania. Despite the ire of many traditional sport coaches and supporters, esports gamers are indeed considered athletes—in some cases, the programs are even housed in their schools’ athletic departments.

These colleges and universities have invested significant funds in on-campus gaming facilities. Even though these are “electronic” games (i.e., the e in esports), the need for a physical training facility remains paramount. Schools such as the University of California–Irvine, Boise State University, Grand Canyon University, University of Akron, and others have established gaming facilities featuring scores of high-end gaming computers, as well as broadcasting capabilities and their own Twitch channels.

Twitch, the video online streaming service that propelled esports into the entertainment mainstream, remains a key broadcasting medium for collegiate esports. Twitch’s prominence has become even more paramount because of COVID-19—the technology blog Engadget reported April 1 that Twitch experienced a 23 percent increase in viewership between February and March.

Make no mistake, however—COVID-19 has negatively affected esports in ways both expected and unexpected. With higher education facing serious budgetary shortfalls due to declining enrollments, funding has put on hold building plans for on-campus esports facilities at a number of colleges and universities. At a minimum, capital expense to build out and equip a modest esports facility on campus is about $50,000. That usually comprises a dozen gaming PCs, desks, gamer chairs, peripherals, and networking infrastructure—a small percentage of a university budget, perhaps, but a potentially prohibitive cost when college finances remain volatile and schools are seeing across-the-board reductions. And esports teams need other funding, too, such as tournament travel, housing, uniforms, and, when necessary, technology upgrades.

In recent years, universities have begun to see the potential for esports as a valid academic discipline. Taking its place in sports management and business programs, esports organization and administration presents a new recruitment and matriculation opportunity, especially for tuition-dependent institutions. Even there, though, the pandemic has left its mark. For example, Ohio State University has had to delay the launch of a first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary major in esports management and game creation; instead of fall 2020, it will happen in fall 2021. Fortunately for esports gamers at OSU, the university does plan to operate its 80-seat esports facility in the fall, albeit at reduced capacity.

Keeping the facility open in some way is important to the organic origins of esports and its intrinsic appeal to digital natives. It was always first and foremost about shared community. Mark Deppe, director of esports at the University of California–Irvine, lamented that the pandemic had forced the shuttering of the school’s 3,500-square-foot esport facility, one of the finest in the nation. “Not having that arena that we invested in to show off is sad,” Deppe told Inside Higher Ed. “Then there’s the lost camaraderie. I can’t underscore that enough.” Still, while playing Madden 2020 online is a mediocre substitute for the actual playing of football, playing Counter-Strike: Global Ops online is the actual sport, offering a genuine training practicum.

Armand Buzzelli, director of campus recreation at Robert Morris University in Moon Township, Pennsylvania (not to be confused with the former Robert Morris University of Illinois), told me in an email, “The March shutdown after the pandemic outbreak really brought out the best in many of our esports participants.” His school’s esports program is only one year old but has already established itself in the region. “They rallied together to become a more philanthropic organization. Our esports team competed in the Gamers vs. Cancer event, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, advancing to the semifinal round in a competition boasting 36 universities from across the country. We also partnered with our ‘Top Secret Colonials’ club for a 48-hour gaming marathon that raised over $5,000 for the Pittsburgh Food Bank,” he wrote.

The Robert Morris University esports students further demonstrated their content creativity by developing a virtual Robert Morris campus build on Minecraft. Buzzelli says this proved therapeutic for those students who missed their home away from home. “While many other aspects of student life have proven difficult to navigate, it has been a time of exponential growth for our esports program,” he said.

Eugene Frier, director of esports and gaming at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, said in an email that his school plans to create “esports intramurals for our students, a mixture of leagues and tournaments. We are also launching a stream team to create weekly content specifically for our Twitch channel. While these two new initiatives will not replicate the varsity experience, they will still provide an outlet for our students to compete, create content, and build community.”

Practically every esport is an example of problem-solving, strategic planning, and probabilistic reasoning. The pandemic has necessitated applying these same attributes to esports producers, media, and university administrators, forcing them to embody the very qualities that have made esports the fastest growing entertainment medium in the world. Not only has esports growth been overwhelmingly organic, it possesses a dynamism that instills in me tremendous optimism about Generation Z.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.