The rise of eSports in higher education

Competitive gaming is gaining mainstream recognition by establishing itself in universities among students and academics

February 23, 2017
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Since the first video game competition was hosted at Stanford University in 1972, the world of gaming has come a long way, with eSports gaming championships now attracting millions of followers and professional gamers being able to travel on the same visas as pro-athletes.

Today, 28 US universities recognise eSports varsity programmes. The University of California, Irvine, has recently opened a 3,500 sq ft eSports area, and a growing number of institutions are offering gaming scholarships.

Victor Xin began organising eSports competitions while a student at the University of Toronto (“I wasn’t the best player, but I enjoyed it…”), and nearly 10 years later established Canada’s first eSports scholarship at the university. He hopes that his scholarship will prove to gamers that their activities are valued, although he recognises that there is likely to be criticism that it is paying students to play video games.

“This is not just an athletics scholarship where you can flunk out of school and still get paid,” he insisted, emphasising that the candidate would be required to demonstrate leadership and get good grades to retain their scholarship.

Josh Williams, founder of the UK’s National University eSports League – which attracts competitors from more than 120 universities – described setting up the league as the “natural thing” to do: “University gives you this allegiance to a particular team, and the society structure and student union help provide mechanisms that allow us to play.”

In the UK, representatives from the National Union of Students have lobbied British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) – the national governing body for collegiate sport – to request that eSports are recognised as an official sport, and similar discussions are occurring in North America. But complications continue over eSports’ lack of institutionalisation and it being “dependent upon a product that is owned by product publishers”, according to Michael Brooks, director of strategic partnerships for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

Meanwhile, eSports is also emerging as a subject of academic interest.

The Communication University of China, Beijing, has recently announced an undergraduate major in eSports management beginning this year. In the US, the University of South Carolina is offering classes on the eSports industry, and the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Florida have structured short courses around strategy in the game StarCraft.

“It’s hard to attend a sports management [academic] conference without seeing at least one eSports presentation on the agenda,” said Seth Jenny, assistant professor in the department of physical education, sport and human performance at Winthrop University, South Carolina. He said that more academics are taking eSports seriously, but many journal editors remain “hesitant” to publish papers on the subject.

Besides attracting interest in the fields of health and sports management, the hyperconnected eSports community may also be considered a sociological spectacle.

Fans interact directly, but distantly, with players through live streaming and during "The International" 2016 – a championship for the game Dota 2 – a $20 million (£16.06 million) prize pool was raised entirely through crowdfunding.

“The whole idea of internet-born activities, the communities, the mindset, the sociological aspect of what’s going on, this is the sort of paradigm that will define the next few decades and our generation,” said Mr Williams. “It’s a fascinating phenomenon and there are lots of different interesting aspects to it.”

Ingo Froböse, a professor at the Germany Sports University Cologne, who has spent years studying the physiology of eSports athletes, said the response of other academics to his work has been positive.

“In my experience, scientific research can help to overcome certain prejudices and gain social acceptance,” Professor Froböse said. “If a university commits to a topic like eSports, it has to be more than a short-term phenomenon.”

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