Josh D. is a high school senior. Outside of classes, he spends more than 10 hours each week at practice and meets with coaches and teammates to prepare for competitions. Some of these competitions take place in large arenas. Others are virtual. They have equipment and uniforms. He, and others like him, hope to follow their passions at the college level on varsity or club teams. Some players even earn scholarships. And, if he wants, he can do all of this from the comfort of his home.
Josh is a seasoned player and logistics director for his high school’s esports team.
Esports has emerged as a varsity sport at high schools and universities worldwide.
In the United States alone the High School Esports League (HSEL) has 3,400 member schools and more than 140,000 students. The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), with more than 170 colleges and 5,000 student athletes, offers $16 million in scholarships each year.
Are esports actually sport?
“The sports vs. esports debate has been around for some time now. At the end of the day, there’s drama, rivalry, and strong competition – just like traditional sports,” said Dom Sacco, founder and editor of Esports News UK and an esports consultant. One of the earliest competitive gaming tournaments was said to take place at Stanford University in 1972.
Esports is a topic at the upcoming Consumer Technology Association’s CES 2022, where two years ago tech leaders weighed in on whether esports is a sport. One of the top gaming companies recently announced its first president of esports. Another executive at the company made the Sports Business Journal’s “Forty under 40” list among other leaders from traditional sports franchises and organizations.
While some countries recognize esports as a game as opposed to a sport, the International Olympics Committee announced the first Olympic Virtual Series last year.
“Esports give students a chance to participate in a non-physical, competitive environment where they have coaches, strategy, and playbooks, just like traditional team sports,” said Deborah Rigg, communications manager for the Applied Math, Science, and Engineering (AMSE) Institute at Valley Christian Schools in San Jose, California.
“It allows students to take their passion for video games and use it to create something positive for their college and professional life,” said Matthew Boman, program manager for esports at Valley Christian.
At his school, Josh D. aspires to future study in psychology, and is one of five student leaders of Valley Christian’s esports team, along with two female leaders, Joanna L. and Xuan Z., who serve as student director and competitive director, respectively.
Valley Christian’s esports program is a collaboration between its Applied Math, Science, and Engineering (AMSE) Institute, its athletics department, and its conservatory. But the team is mostly run by AMSE because of its technology focus. Boman started it as a club during the 2018-2019 school year after seeing an increase in college programs. Today it is a high school varsity and junior varsity sport, and Valley Christian now plans to take it to its middle school.
“There was a trickling down effect,” said Boman. “Esports has quintupled – it’s up 600% over four years.”
Since its inception, between 60 and 100 students participate each year and compete in 14 different games. Some travel to national competitions and place in tournaments as individuals or with teams. Others earn college scholarships, such as a recent graduate who was a three-time Madden winner and was awarded a yearly $2,500 scholarship to Baylor University.
University of California, Irvine (UCI) is near the top of the Top 25 Schools for College Esports list, according to the Checkpoint XP on Campus podcast.
Mark Deppe, director of UCI esports, was a recent graduate who worked at UCI for five years when he saw the potential for esports. UCI was known as the top ranked school for gamers with its club teams winning national tournaments. He pitched the university chancellor and executive cabinet to secure funds to build what became the first of its kind UCI Esports Arena in the Fall of 2016, which today is open to students and the public. The esports arena houses 36 desktop computers and games are stored on a server.
“After finding a space on campus that we could renovate and building a cost-neutral business plan for the university, we got the green light to do it,” said Deppe.
Esports is a varsity sport at UCI, under student affairs. It does not officially fall under athletics because players can win money for their efforts. Deppe cites NCAA rules, “if your star basketball player isn’t allowed to have a YouTube channel and then our kids are going to a tournament and winning $500 on the side, it’s hard to have those two things sitting next to each other,” he explains.
Deppe’s perspective of what constitutes a varsity esports program as opposed to a club run by students is clear: “My definition means that you need to have one or more paid staff, scholarships, paid coaches, and hopefully a facility,” he said. UCI’s esports program is built on five pillars: competition, academics/research, community, entertainment, and career development.
Not just a game: esports career paths
In addition to the players, esports have audiences and fan experiences which drive several fields esports participants can pursue.
“In terms of careers in esports, there’s the management, production, hosting, journalism, marketing, and a lot more,” said Sacco. “There was the perception that (esports) was not a real job, but that started to change when parents saw there were viable careers.” Several universities in the U.K offer esports degrees. The British Esports Association is helping to launch the College of Esports, which will be the first university-level institution completely dedicated to the business of esports starting in 2022.
At Valley Christian, students are not just interested in engineering and game design, but other careers like graphic design, event management, digital storytelling, and shoutcasting, according to Boman.
Deppe says the student-athletes at UCI come from a diverse set of majors.
“We have art majors. We have sociologists. We have [political science] majors, but the most popular majors are computer science, computer game science, and engineering,” said Deppe. “UCI graduates go into esports or gaming adjacent industries, working for companies like Visio, Twitch, or professional sports teams.”
“The students get to do what they love with peers in a supportive environment and also get a degree while they’re doing it,” said Deppe. “I think that’s the biggest draw – merging your passion with your education.”
Another plus is the life skills they learn as part of a team. In addition to access to coaches, UCI esports teams meet with a psychologist once of month to work out any issues in a safe space with a mentor. Issues like online harassment occur often in gaming, so the sessions on mental health, team dynamics, and conflict resolution are valuable.
“We’re helping them level up because if they don’t do it here, they’re going to make mistakes in a professional setting or later in life,” said Deppe. “Our athletes are very supportive of each other. We have clear expectations on how we treat each other and all those things. But it will not just ‘happen’ if you kind of press the ‘go button’ for esports.”
Data helps make esports happen
“The games need to be super-fast and able to store terabytes of data,” said Deppe. “We generate lots of data in terms of videos our athletes recorded on their perspectives or matches.”
In addition to storage, many esports programs and tournaments rely on sponsorships.
Western Digital sponsors tournaments worldwide including the League of Legends EU Masters, the BLAST Apex Legends tournament in Europe, We.Gamer Day events for university students, and the WD_Black Cup Esports Tournament across Asia. The company’s WD_BLACK brand delivers innovative storage solutions customized for the gamer.