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

Return on Investment

Esports provides institutions a return on investment in student interest, recruitment, and retention. Every interviewed institution reported consistent growth since the program's inception in the number of players in their esports programs, and most reported expanding the number of games for which they have teams of players. Additionally, interviewees reported growing levels of attendance at in-person events before the pandemic forced a pause on them, but the interviewees were all confident they would see a return to high levels of engagement as students return to campus.

Several interviewees reported students inquiring about esports in the application process, and among institutions that have developed varsity teams, most now offer esports intake forms in the admissions process. Other institutions host an esports website where students can fill in their gamertag and the game or games they are interested in playing to be put on a list for tryouts.

When asked about recruiting players from high schools, most interviewees reported that esports is rarely, if at all, recognized in high schools. Many institutions are trying to support the growth of high school esports by hosting events on campus that high school students can attend. Some institutions host tournaments for high school teams in their arenas to support the students and as a recruitment tool to showcase their institution's esports program. Interviewees reported that this has helped grow the community and increased their ability to recruit students to their institutions.

Students succeed and grow when participating in an esports program. Interviewees at MC3 spoke about how, after starting their esports program three semesters ago, they "saw students getting recruited to four-year-institution esports teams," and specifically, they called out seeing some impressive social growth from some of their players. They've designed and built their esports program to engender a sense of belonging and community for their athletes. Kendall Martin, a computer science faculty member and faculty advisor for esports at MC3, spoke about how one of the biggest returns on investment she saw was the social and emotional growth after she "met students who are sensitive, delicate, and have expertise in an area that others don't value. In our program they run into a group of people who value and encourage you, and it changes how you see yourself." She also noted how great it was to "see multiple student esports athletes walk across the stage at graduation, proudly showcasing their gamerhood." This was not an experience unique to MC3—other institutions also reported on student success and growth in and around their esports programs.

Esports offers an opportunity for national success and recognition. Because esports is a relatively new sport, it isn't completely dominated by Division I institutions. In fact, many smaller institutions, such as Grand View University and Rogers State University, reported teams placing in the top eight or better in national competitions in the first few years of their programs, rankings typically dominated in more traditional sports by larger institutions.

Many interviewees reported the excitement and interest that was generated among students at their institutions when their esports teams placed well in tournaments. Student journalists would report on the success of the team, content-creation specialists would create videos of highlights for fans, and institutional broadcast streams covering the games would see increased views when teams were doing well. Boise State University, known for its blue field in the traditional sport of football, constantly reports on its esports teams' performances at national competitions, where they regularly place very well across many different games.

New donors and sponsorships can be found to support esports. Many interviewees reported that alumni were a great source of funds to start and grow their esports programs. Some of the alumni were interested in esports themselves, while others had children who were interested or involved in it and wanted to help make sure there were opportunities for them to engage in esports in college.

Additionally, for locally hosted tournaments and events, interviewees reported obtaining donations and sponsorships from a variety of sources. Only a few of the biggest and most successful institutions reported sponsorships from large gaming-related companies such as HP, Microsoft, or Red Bull. Some interviewees connected with local gaming shops or other local businesses with owners interested in esports as another source of funding and support.