Last spring, five Columbia College athletes squared off against rivals from Ohio State University in the Southwell Athletic Complex in Columbia, Missouri. Professional announcers provided exciting play-by-play analysis over the sound system, while lighting rigs created a dramatic atmosphere. Hundreds of fans watched the tightly contested match, cheering wildly when our team ultimately prevailed. It was one of my proudest moments as president of Columbia College, a fine institution that isn’t often mentioned alongside Ohio State.
However, the athletes weren’t playing basketball or any other traditional sport. They were playing League of Legends, a team-based video game portrayed on a huge screen behind the players. Just one of the games played by collegiate esports teams, League boasts 20 million active players in North America alone. If you’ve never heard of it, or the exploding world of esports, read on.
THE ACCIDENTAL GAMER
Columbia College entered the world of esports in a roundabout way. Back in 2014, I wanted to find a way to make my inauguration festivities attractive to students, for whom such events typically rank a notch above funerals. I asked my 21-year-old son how to achieve this goal, and, with a sarcastic tone, he said, “Play video games.”
Much to my son’s surprise, we ran with the idea, creating a tournament in which a field of 48 students would vie for the chance to play against me in the popular game Madden NFL. If the student champion could beat me on Inauguration Day, I promised to buy his or her textbooks for the entire academic year—from my own pocket. My staff created a short video, with modest production values, in which I engaged in merciless trash talk. (My favorite line was “You can play as any team you like: the St. Louis Rams, the Dallas Cowboys, the Chicago Bears… you can even choose a professional team.”) We uploaded the video to YouTube, figuring maybe a few hundred people would see it.
Things changed when the Buffalo Bills used Twitter to share the video, in which I’d promised to play as the Bills, my favorite team. My private taunt to students quickly went viral. We’re not talking Taylor Swift numbers, but when Yahoo interviewed me on a show about viral videos, we knew we had something. The story was picked up by Sports Illustrated, Fox News, USA Today, Bleacher Report, The Huffington Post, and dozens of other places on the web, in print, and on television.
After a wonderful formal ceremony on Inauguration Day, I discarded my academic robe, donned a Bills jersey, and proceeded to a packed lecture hall with stadium seating.
Alas, the sad truth is I’m only a fair video game player, able to recall the functions of approximately two buttons at any given time—a problem in Madden, whose controls and strategies are surprisingly complex. The student champion, nursing major Eric Dailey, ended up trouncing me 32-13. The score made ESPN’s ticker that evening. (How badly did he beat me? Once, he punted the ball on first down. If you don’t know football, that’s not a sign of respect.) I gladly paid up; the defeat had the additional benefit of reminding me how much students spend on textbooks.
Afterward, it struck me that something truly special had happened in that room full of engaged students—something worth chasing.
As we brainstormed ways to bottle that energy, some staff members, gamers themselves, began to educate me about the burgeoning world of esports. I had no idea what a big deal it is.
The term esports, short for electronic sports, encompasses all types of competitive video gaming, even a few that don’t resemble sports in the traditional sense, such as Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Some, such as League of Legends, Dota 2, Overwatch, and Heroes of the Storm, are team games, while others, such as Madden NFL or Hearthstone (a card-based game), are played individually. Most games are played on personal computers or on consoles like the Xbox or PlayStation.
Esports has quickly grown into a billion-dollar industry with astounding growth potential. Hundreds of millions of players are active worldwide, and major esports events sell out venues like the Staples Center in Los Angeles or Madison Square Garden in New York. Millennial males in the United States are as likely to follow e-sports as major league baseball. NBA teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat have purchased stakes in professional esports teams, as have a number of European soccer teams and billionaire investor Mark Cuban. Top professional players—yes, there are professional video gamers—can earn more than a million dollars a year.
Of all the things I learned, the key insight, the thing that makes it all work, is this: Members of the current generation like to watch each other play video games. If that sounds obvious, it isn’t. At 49, I’m a member of Generation X, which largely invented modern video gaming. Many of us like to play games ourselves, but watching someone else play can be immensely frustrating—we want the controller. Today’s gamers are different, happy to watch each other play for hours. They admire the skill of top players, and watch them, hoping to pick up tips for their own games—the same way an amateur golfer might follow the PGA Tour, or a Texas Hold ‘Em enthusiast might study professional poker players on ESPN.
This reality is the basis of Twitch, a video game streaming service on the web, where viewers can access millions of live or recorded games. How big is Twitch? The site claims more than 100 million unique viewers per month. Amazon was impressed enough to purchase the company in 2014 for $970 million.
Clearly something big is happening, but what could that mean for a college in central Missouri?
FORMING A TEAM
Columbia College is unusual. We have a main campus in Columbia with about 1,100 traditional students, but we also have more than 20,000 adult students at 34 extended campuses across the United States and online. Only our small traditional campus, however, has athletic programs. If we were members of the NCAA, we’d likely be a very good Division III school. But we’re not in the NCAA. Like more than 200 independent colleges, we’re a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) member, meaning that unlike NCAA Division III schools, we’re allowed to give athletic scholarships, full or partial, if we wish.
We quickly decided that a team game was best for us, landing on League of Legends, a high-tech, five-player version of “capture the flag” where each player chooses from among more than 100 characters, all with different strengths and weaknesses, and attempts to destroy the other team’s base. A great deal of strategy, as well as much frantic clicking of mice, is involved. Once you understand a few simple rules, it’s fun to watch.
One of the advantages of esports programs is that they are relatively inexpensive to run, with most games played online rather than on tournament stages. Still, we wanted a special place for our team to practice, so we converted a small building—a former locker room for our soccer team—into The Game Hut, a futuristic den known for a colorful ceiling light that crawls down the walls like a giant circuit. We became the fifth college in the country to offer partial scholarships for talented League players, and quickly filled our roster just by announcing ourselves on a few key message boards. Ask yourself this: If there were 20 million active basketball players in the country, and only five colleges offered any sort of scholarship, what kind of team could you amass?
We joined the Collegiate Starleague (CSL), a Toronto-based conference for esports, and did very well in our first year, going undefeated in the regular season. Two of our players were Challenger-level in League, meaning they were in the top 200 players out of 20 million on the North American server, collegiate or not. One podcast picked us, along with Carnegie Mellon University—nice company for us— as dark horses who could win it all. Ultimately, we didn’t win a championship in our first year, but we staked our claim as a serious contender. We also hosted our own tournament, the Midwest Campus Clash and Gaming Expo, with a donated $35,000 prize pool and more than 1,300 attendees. That’s where we defeated Ohio State. (In fairness, Ohio State doesn’t offer scholarships for League, though the school’s huge base of traditional-age students allows it to field competitive teams anyway.)
It’s been a fun ride so far. Much of the value for us has been simple name recognition, with our brand becoming well known in gaming communities that contain plenty of current and prospective college students. Esports has become for us what basketball is for, say, Gonzaga University— creating a national profile for what might otherwise have been a regional institution. We’ve also benefitted from the general halo of “coolness” that comes with innovation. This extends well beyond the gaming world. When I meet community members in the grocery store, they often say something like, “Wow, you folks are doing amazing things at Columbia College,” even though if pressed they wouldn’t necessarily recall what, exactly, we’re doing that’s so amazing.
We’re in the Wild West of esports right now, and the only certainty is change. In our first year of esports competition, there were just a handful of scholarship schools. In our second, there are dozens, and soon there will be hundreds. In 2017, the Big Ten conference announced a partnership with Riot Games, maker of League of Legends, for a 12-school League series televised on the Big Ten Network. Cable channel TBS now hosts a weekly esports show on Friday nights. Where there’s this sort of growth, there’s big money, and money has a way of changing things for better and worse. It’s possible that large universities will soon dominate esports the way they do traditional sports, and schools like Columbia College may find it difficult to compete. We’ll see.
No matter where this leads us, though, it’s already been a fascinating experience, giving us a taste of big-time college sports on a modest budget. I won’t share exactly what we’ve spent on esports infrastructure or scholarships, but it’s a fraction of what we spend on many traditional sports. The positive national press we’ve received dwarfs anything in our entire history, back to 1851. And did I mention that we beat Ohio State?
Critics have legitimate questions about esports, including concerns about diversity. Although every team I know of technically is co-ed, it’s true that males currently dominate collegiate rosters. In Columbia College’s case, this isn’t for lack of trying; we do our best to attract talented female gamers via outreach, including a “Girls Who Game” camp for high schoolers. Still, for now our team is undeniably all-male, and like all colleges we need to ensure that gaming remains both respectful of and welcoming to women. And we must remain vigilant about more than gender to ensure inclusiveness; ethnic diversity across esports is also lacking, with most players having European or Asian ancestry. (My personal observation is that collegiate gamers tend to have healthy attitudes toward diversity, partly because when you play others online, you typically have little idea what their backgrounds are.)
Esports can also challenge students who lack solid time management skills; without intervention, schoolwork can suffer. All sports are presumably fun, or at least rewarding, for the participants. Yet after football or swimming practice, most student athletes are quite happy to head for the showers and get some rest. Conversely, it can be difficult to get esports players to stop practicing. Video games are engineered to be addictive. We can close our Game Hut for the day, but that doesn’t preclude a player from logging in later from the dorm room. While I'm not aware of any research on the topic, I suspect that esports players are academically more capable than the average student. However, it takes solid coaching and strong academic support to ensure they manage their time well and succeed in the classroom. Even sleep can suffer, and coaches must guard against drugs, particularly prescription drugs, that enhance attention. In esports you don’t worry much about steroids, you worry about Adderall.
There’s another issue that we never anticipated: students leaving school early to turn pro. Last year, two of our students received offers from professional farm teams, lured by promised $50,000 salaries and life in a “gaming house” in Los Angeles. Despite our best efforts to counsel them, both players left before graduating. By the time they realized that the offers were too good to be true, we’d already filled their roster slots. Some professional offers are indeed legitimate, but they still prompt serious questions about student retention, graduation, and more.
By far the most common objection to esports, though, is that the entire idea seems, well, silly. A president who proposes esports to a board of trustees is likely to be met by a certain amount of skepticism, with reactions ranging from eyebrow-raising to eye-rolling. Most college trustees are in their 50s, 60s, or 70s, and while they may be perfectly conversant with technology, they typically have little direct experience with video gaming, which can seem about as serious to them as a game of Yahtzee.
My response is twofold. First, consider the history of higher education. Just a few generations ago, colleges and universities were having a very similar debate about whether traditional sports had any place in the academy. The general consensus was some variation of “What does football have to do with the serious pursuit of knowledge?” Today few people question the legitimacy of sports on campus; institutions that spurned athletics were on the wrong side of history.
My second response is simpler yet. What, I ask you, is inherently more noble— or more academic—about the ability to serve a volleyball or shoot a free throw? Most of us now accept soccer and tennis and softball as appropriate collegiate activities, potentially worthy of scholarships if pursued at a very high level. How, exactly, are video games different?
As a group, I find today’s collegiate gamers to be smart, driven, interesting people. Their academic interests are varied. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t all want to be computer programmers. They’re open and welcoming and have a great sense of humor. Are they always perfect, model citizens? No. That’s why they need us.
The world is moving inexorably toward esports, with or without us, silly or not. I believe that within a generation, some sort of video gaming will be recognized as an Olympic sport. Some observers go farther than that, predicting that esports, as an industry, will eclipse traditional sports in both viewership and revenue. If that sounds far-fetched, ask a group of eighth-graders whether they want to watch soccer or play Halo on the Xbox.
So, if your president suggests bringing esports to your campus, rest assured that the apocalypse is not nigh. He or she is not necessarily in need of psychological help. And don’t ask your friends or colleagues what they think—they’re probably not in your institution’s target demographic. Instead, ask a 17-year-old. Then shrug and jump right in. The water’s fine.