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Learning from Collegiate E-Sports

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Professional competitive gaming (colloquially called e-sports) has been growing rapidly in the past few years, currently worth hundreds of millions of dollars with significant room left to grow. 

With this has also been a burgeoning collegiate e-sports circuit. Teams are being assembled at institutions nationwide to play a variety of games. These students are getting the varsity treatment at a lot of colleges, with scholarships, physical therapy, and world class facilities. A notable recent example is the University of Akron, which made a big investment in collegiate e-sports while scaling back academic funding.

Schools like University of California – Irvine & Harrisburg University are joining ranks as part of national organizations like NACE and Tespa to build out an official network of collegiate teams (basically their version of the NCAA).

It’s important to keep a pulse on trends that students are connecting with. Not everyone needs to make a hard turn and go all in on every trend, but e-sports is here to stay and students are engaging in a big way. We can learn a lot from this phenomenon to inspire us to better engage all of our students, both in person and digitally.

Creating Community

The world of e-sports was built upon digital communities. Whether it is through platforms like Discord, or live-streaming events through Twitch, fans have created memes, slang, and traditions that deepen their bond.

It’s fair to say there are numerous students at every university that are fans and perhaps even playing competitively, whether they’re an official student org or not. It’s important to honor and support them to nurture healthy community building. These are often students who aren’t involved elsewhere on campus, but are heavily invested in their gaming community. It’s a strong affinity that should be respected.

In general, we can learn a lot of lessons on community engagement from the e-sports world. Consider how you can create livestreams for campus events and make them more accessible. Facebook and Instagram have made it easier than ever to go live on social media. Also, tools like Discord provide robust chat interfaces with different channels for different audiences. This is another indicator of how you can work to meet students where they are to share your messaging. Discord is the platform of choice for the gaming community, but there are plenty of other options to have mobile friendly messaging. Slack is another popular option.

Professional Pathways

As an industry experiencing high growth, e-sports has garnered a lot of attention lately for a number of reasons. Investors are getting involved and various competitive events, teams, and organizations are staffing up to support the growth and sustainability of the scene. As such, there are more career opportunities for students here than ever, no matter what their major is. It could be a career in hospitality, event management, coaching, community building, technology support, or live-streaming.

This is the same work we do with other students who are looking to get into more established industries, but we may not be as aware of options for e-sports. Whether it’s connecting with professionals or other student e-sports athletes, it’s valuable to help your students build their networks. You can even invite industry speakers for events that you stream and record for others to view (see point above). Another option is internships with teams or organizations, many of which could be done remotely. There is a lot of potential whichever way your institution decides to go.

Celebrating Diverse Students

As I mentioned before, e-sports brings in students who might not be as visible and engaged elsewhere on campus. With the students you do have playing competitively, they’re working hard and perhaps earning money for winning tournaments. It’s an accomplishment that can be shared and celebrated within your university community. It is important to make their effort feel just as valuable and recognized as other students’.

Another benefit is that e-sports can be a more equitable path for student engagement for more kinds of students than some other campus opportunities. Students who are commuters, adult learners, or fully online can just as easily join a e-sports team as another “traditional” student. A lot of student organizations have, albeit unintentional, bias towards on-campus students since that’s how they were originally created. Bolstering opportunities in e-sports means accessibility for more students.

We also see representation of international students a fair amount, as well as more equal access for POC and women, but there is still more work to do here in terms of representation across the board. This provides a great opportunity for campus leaders and higher ed professionals to work to facilitate this and create a spot for everyone within this space.

This is a new frontier for campuses. It promises a lot of potential but it can also be intimidating since it is unfamiliar. With some patience, taking time to learn about this great engagement opportunity for students will provide inspiration for professionals. Whether you’re specifically fostering e-sports on your campus or simply taking cues from its proliferation, you’ll be better positioned to help build a more open, engaging campus community.