Expanding Esports in Higher Ed: Benefits and Guidance for New Esports Programs

Common Challenges

Skepticism is a big challenge for the creation and expansion of esports. The most commonly reported challenge from interviewees was encountering skepticism of gaming and esports. Skepticism came from people in many positions in higher education—administration, faculty, deans, parents, and more. The most common forms of skepticism were general disdain for gaming, along with preconceived notions that gaming is a waste of time. Nearly all interviewees reported encountering statements such as, "I don't want students playing games when they should be studying," and questions such as, "What kind of value can a student get from playing games?" or, "Won't this negatively impact student health?"

While some students may spend too much of their free time playing games, there are clear benefits for esports athletes who join a team to learn valuable life skills while doing something they love. Interviewees also reported that, similar to traditional sports, retention of esports athletes is fantastic, and they perform well in their schoolwork as well—not to mention the ways that students in various disciplines can benefit from engaging in the jobs and opportunities described above that come with the creation and expansion of an esports program.

The bottom line is that anyone trying to create and grow an esports program will have to face skeptics and must be prepared to address common concerns and explain the numerous potential benefits that esports can bring to a higher education institution.

Finding funding can be difficult at the start. Following from the challenge of skepticism, if budgetary resources from athletics or student services are not available, finding funds to start growing an esports program can be difficult. The cost for the technologies and the effort required to renovate a space for an arena can be hefty, not something easily paid for with club funds. Several interviewees started their esports programs with volunteers who were passionate about the project. They started with a few consoles and repurposed PCs, renting space on campus over the year to host small tournaments, and inviting students to participate and play casually or competitively. The volunteers built up attendance and participation in their club and events as a proof of concept for their institutional leadership, eventually receiving funding to renovate classrooms into gaming centers.

Other institutions worked with vendors to obtain discounts on technology and equipment such as gaming rigs and chairs, large screens for projection, and streaming hardware. As interest in esports has increased, HP, a vendor of gaming rigs and accessories, is now offering the no-cost HP Grants Support Program to help institutions identify and apply for grants to build out esports program and facilities.

One other issue worth noting when having conversations about funding an esports facility or arena is that they are much more affordable than a traditional sports training facility. That fact, combined with the clear growth of collegiate and global esports, benefits to students, and any demonstrable local interest in gaming, might help loosen some purse strings.

Managing a growing program comes with new challenges requiring new solutions. Because esports is still relatively new to the higher education world, many fresh challenges and questions remain about how best to plan for the growth of a program. Many of these challenges will be unique to each institution and will require the knowledge and experience of those who understand the personality and character of the institution to solve.

One interviewee explained the way they look at managing and growing their program:

You need to remember, we're not trying to prescribe a perfect plan for growth. You have to look at it like water and let it take its own form and shape. Our job is to lay an anchor or build a base; then we need to wait, and watch, and trust, and see how our students and advisors are going to piece things together. This is going to happen differently depending on the personality of each institution. You can't look to immediately provide an answer for a five-year plan. You have to look at the year-by-year growth as an opportunity to discover new ways forward.