The clicking of the keyboards, the bright LEDs shining in the competitor’s faces, the screams of excited fans and spectators, this is all part of what makes top-level esports special.
But at the collegiate level, there’s a different story to tell. Unlike the professional scene, the room for growth collegiate is obvious. The top of the line talent is still being developed, and many competitors are also full-time students, and working jobs on the side. While this may seem near impossible, there is still a thriving esports scene, with fans just as dedicated as the pros.
The collegiate esports scene is expanding rapidly. Schools are investing money in their organizations. They have awarded scholarships and built dedicated spaces for teams. There is a growing interest in this new arena of competition.
Mike “Moog” Aguilar, director of esports at the University of Oklahoma, said that currently there is a bit of fragmentation between universities involved in esports.
“In 2016, when we started developing at OU, we had less than 25 universities with institutional support, but now in 2021, there are over 270 universities with an endorsed program,” Aguilar said. “The majority of all schools are only fixated on competitive energies.”
Aguilar also said that there are only a handful of schools in esports that focus on all aspects of the industry.
“Mentoring shoutcasters, understanding overlays, letting students get involved in the production, which is actually what the word esports is about,” Aguilar said. “That’s the entertainment aspect. ”If you’re not doing production, if you’re not doing a showcase, how can anyone be a fan?”
Gaming is on the rise and has been for a long time. According to the 2019 ESA (Entertainment Software Association) Essential Facts, 65% of all American adults play video games. The amount to which they play may vary, but it shows that gaming has a large audience that can continue to grow.
Jonathan Hudson, meteorology junior and competitive director of OU esports, said that collegiate esports is approaching the “singularity”.
“It’s increasing in popularity at such a fast rate, it’s almost hard to keep up with, partly because of COVID, being one of the few things that can survive during the COVID landscape,” Hudson said.
Hudson also said that professional and collegiate esports don’t necessarily share the same relationship that regular sports do.
“In regular sports, high school recruits go to college and then from there to professional teams can recruit for their rosters,” Hudson said. “There is a very clear “path to pro” with collegiate and professional sports. With collegiate esports it’s not quite the same, the main difference being age. You can see 13 to 15-year-old kids getting out and making a name for themselves, without even being at the age where college is a question yet. That in and of itself makes the path a little less clear, because of the huge age difference in players.”
While many players have the opportunity to go out and become a professional instead of going to college, Hudson said that many players, including a few on his rosters, chose collegiate over professional to create a more rounded experience for themselves.
“You’re going to college not only to just focus on your career in esports and competitive teams, but also your college life, a career in something, and pursuing that when you graduate,” Hudson said. “If you go to a professional team, that is what you’re doing. College can provide a more well rounded experience that opens up a lot of directions you can go, while professional play is focused on nothing but playing.”
Collegiate esports isn’t without its fans, either. Although it has a smaller fanbase than professional teams and leagues, they are just as dedicated to supporting their team. Brandon Villarreal, first-year master’s student at OU, said that he feels a personal connection to his collegiate team.
“College esports is different from professional,” Villarreal said. “They each have their own ways of executing things. When I came to Oklahoma, I wanted to be a fan of the school I was a part of. When there is an event, I always tune in not only to cheer on my team but also because I know the players. I have a connection to the team, there’s a community behind it.”
Villarreal also said that he feels there is more passion behind collegiate esports because there isn’t a lot of money to back up the players.
“These guys aren’t playing for hundreds of thousands of dollars, they’re playing because they want to,” Villarreal said. “They put the time and dedication into the game because they love it, on top of being full-time college students. It’s tough being in college, and when you add this extracurricular on top of it… it just blows my mind that they can play at such a high caliber, and still go to class every day. Professionals play all day, they have nutritionists and teams to care for them and support them. At the collegiate level, there isn’t something like that for esports, there’s not someone keeping their schedule, telling them what to do. These people I am watching are putting their all into this, and I think that is really cool.”
Conner Robb, chemistry sophomore and captain of the Overwatch team said that playing on the team is a major time commitment.
“We have four practices a week, so the middle of the week is very packed, we usually don’t have nights to do anything besides practice,” Robb said. “It’s a lot of fun, though. I love to compete and play against other schools.”
Robb also said that while he started out doing it for fun, there is a chance he could make it into a career.
“I’ve recently gotten very good, so going pro is now a big possibility,” Robb said. “I think that professional esports is just a ladder up from college. I’d like to go pro, I think it would be very fun. I think anyone can become a pro if they sink enough time into it, but the time has to matter. Focused time for a little bit matters so much more than time spent playing without a goal.”
Robb also says that as a competitor, the competition is pretty straightforward. The difficulty comes out in the game.
“Figuring out how to play it, that’s the difficult part,” Robb said. “Interacting with other teams is easy and exciting, it becomes difficult when you get into the game, and you just have to play them.”
While esports may seem like it’s on the rise, it still has a lot of room to grow. According to Newzoo, In 2020, esports officially became a billion-dollar market, generating $1.1 billion in the year, yet this only makes up a sliver of the total gaming market. Newzoo also reported that in 2020, across all platforms, the total revenue for gaming amounted to $174.9 billion, making esports less than one percent of the revenue of gaming overall.
With the gaming and esports scenes continuing to grow larger and with more schools starting to invest in the programs, it is only a matter of time before the collegiate esports realm explodes in popularity and becomes what many dream for it to be.