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

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


Esports is a large industry that is getting larger. Esports viewership has shown continual growth in recent years, with the global esports audience estimated to reach 474 million viewers by the end of 2021 and with estimated revenues of more than $1 billion this year and more than $1.5 billion by 2024. The League of Legends World Championship finals in 2020 had an average viewership of more than 23 million people, with a peak audience of over 45 million viewers—nearly half the audience of the 96 million who watched the NFL's 2021 Super Bowl and far more than the 9.8 million who watched the MLB World Series or the 9.9 million who tuned in to the NBA Finals.

Esports is growing across higher education as well. With the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in the reduction or cancelation of many traditional sports, esports competitions have stepped in as a way for supporters to cheer on their institution. Currently, 185 institutions have varsity teams registered to compete in national tournaments with the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), up from only 125 in 2019. Meanwhile, more than 30 different games are played in collegiate esports, including 5-on-5 teamwork-oriented games, 1-on-1 strategic card games, free-for-all games, and more. Some of the longest running and most popular games in collegiate esports include League of Legends, Rocket League, Super Smash Brothers, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Hearthstone, and Overwatch. But new games continue to debut in collegiate esports, such as Valorant from Riot Games, released in June 2020 and already attracting the attention of collegiate esports teams and athletes with 17 institutions already fielding Valorant teams.

How can institutions of higher education best capitalize on this emerging trend and build and grow successful and competitive esports programs? What challenges and opportunities await institutions on the road ahead, and what capabilities will be most important for institutions to develop? Through interviews conducted with staff, faculty, and esports coaches across a sample of higher education institutions—including research institutions, smaller colleges, and community colleges—the research summarized in this report provides an in-depth exploration into these and other important questions. Among other insights, this report highlights the stakeholders who should be involved in building esports programs, the ways in which diversity and inclusion can and should be considered at all levels of the program, and the benefits of esports to both the institution and its students, including those students who might not engage with other higher education communities.

And whereas most people think of "careers" in esports as those of only the gamers themselves, numerous other careers also surround the sport, such as management of teams and organizations, event planning, marketing, art design, video and audio production, game design, content creation, streaming, and broadcasting. Institutions that create and support esports programs open all kinds of workforce prospects for students, much more than just prospects for the athletes themselves. The opportunity is ripe for institutions to connect with students in new ways and build new communities of engagement with esports teams and gaming facilities.

Key Findings

  • Esports prepares students for a range of careers. Students can learn valuable workforce skills for a plethora of careers when an esports program is well managed and staffed with mentors and coaches.
  • Esports can engage new groups of students. Some students who don't interact as much with other areas of the higher education community are interested in esports. Esports offers institutions an opportunity to include and engage more students than ever before.
  • The "e" in "esports" needs to stand for everybody. Diversity and inclusion need to be top of mind for institutions that are entering into esports or growing their programs. Toxic behaviors are ingrained in the larger gaming industry that need to be identified and addressed when developing teams and players.
  • Return on investment comes in many forms. Institutions may see an ROI from additional recruitment and sponsorships as they build their esports programs. Esports also helps institutions attract more and new types of students while providing benefits to the athletes and the students involved in the operation of the program.
  • Any institution can succeed in esports. Community colleges, small private institutions, and large public universities are all succeeding in creating esports teams and competing at the national level.

Learn More

Access additional materials, including an infographic and a webinar, on the Esports Research Hub.

EDUCAUSE is a higher education technology association and the largest community of IT leaders and professionals committed to advancing higher education. Technology, IT roles and responsibilities, and higher education are dynamically changing. Formed in 1998, EDUCAUSE supports those who lead, manage, and use information technology to anticipate and adapt to these changes, advancing strategic IT decision-making at every level within higher education. EDUCAUSE is a global nonprofit organization whose members include US and international higher education institutions, corporations, not-for-profit organizations, and K–12 institutions. With a community of more than 99,000 individuals at member organizations located around the world, EDUCAUSE encourages diversity in perspective, opinion, and representation. For more information, please visit educause.edu.


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Citation for this work
Sean Burns. Expanding Esports in Higher Ed: Benefits and Guidance for New Esports Programs. Research report. Boulder, CO: ECAR, August 2021.