Authors: Jill Murray, PhD1, Erica Barone Pricce, PhD2, and Stephanie Decker MBA3

1President and Chief Innovation Officer, Lackawanna College, Scranton, PA, USA
2Provost, Lackawanna College, Scranton, PA, USA
3Office of Social and Economic Impact, Lackawanna College, Scranton, PA, USA

Corresponding Author:
Stephanie Decker, MBA, CHE
501 Vine Street
Scranton, Pa 18509

Jill Murray is the President and Chief Innovation Officer at the Lackawanna College in Scranton, PA. Her research interests focus on innovation, strategic planning and leadership.

Erica Barone Pricci, PhD is the Provost at Lackawanna College in Scranton, PA.  Erica’s areas of research interest include supporting at risk college students, program development and building educational pathways. 

Stephanie Decker, MBA is the Associate Vice President of Social and Economic impact at Lackawanna College, Scranton, PA. Her research interests are in the areas of small business success factors, creating job pipelines for disadvantaged students, and using innovation to reduce the student loan burden in the United States.

Key Words: collegiate esports, higher education, mission


Esports describes the world of competitive, organized video gaming. A few years ago, esports may have been seen as a fad, but over the last few years, statistics show a different story: Esports is not only here to stay but has also emerged as one of the most booming business ecosystems in the world. The professional leagues of esports have been around for a few years, but the collegiate space is emerging as a new and interesting platform for these games. This article presents the idea that collegiate esports programs provide value to colleges and universities in a variety of ways and argues that esports has the potential and opportunity to support an institution’s mission in both financial and philosophical ways. 

Staggering Statistics

In the coming year, the global esports economy projects revenues of $1.1 billion, a year-on-year growth of 15.7% (Takahashi, 2020). In 2016, esports had over $492 million in revenue, and revenues were predicted to increase over 32% by the end of 2020, with an estimated revenue of $1.48 billion in the US alone (Much Needed, 2020). Investors are also getting in the game. The esports industry has seen a significant increase in venture capitalist investments, and more recently from private equity firms. The number of investments in esports doubled in 2018, going from 34 in 2017 to 68 in 2018, per Deloitte. That’s reflected in the total dollars invested, too: Investments are up to $4.5 billion in 2018 from just $490 million the year before, a staggering year-on-year growth of 837% per Deloitte (Reyes, 2019). “We expect sponsorship will be one of the largest revenue opportunities for esports,” said Christopher Merwin, an analyst at Goldman Sachs. This is because nearly 80% of esports viewers are between the ages of 10 and 35, a coveted demographic.”  In the US, esports will enjoy more viewers than every professional sports league other than the NFL by 2021 (Much Needed, 2020; Tani, 2018).

The substantial revenues are, however, almost solely from the professional side of esports. Like the NFL, the NHL, the NBA, and FIFA, esports has a multitude of professional teams globally. The revenues come from sponsorships, licenses, gaming rights, ticket sales and more.  As the professional teams become more mainstream, feeder systems, college, and minor league esports teams are beginning to emerge, as they did for these other professional leagues. 

Collegiate Esports as a Business

College sports is also a big business. If we consider that the total revenue generated among all NCAA athletics departments in 2018 was $10.3 billion, we can easily see that with the exploding viewership, an established professional sector, as well as the burgeoning merchandizing and ticket sales ecosystem, adding esports to any athletic department’s repertoire is not far off (Finances; Takahashi, 2020).  In fact, according to the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), more than 170 U.S. colleges have varsity esports programs and are offering around $16 million per year in scholarships. College esports tournament organizer Tespa notes that its competitions attract more than 1,350 schools and more than 40,000 players (Venero, 2020). It is a matter of time before each esports season becomes the next March Madness. The business argument for esports programs is easily seen. What is not always understood is how esports is a perfect mission-fit for colleges and universities.

The benefits of traditional collegiate athletics have been well-proven. Physical benefits notwithstanding, collegiate athletics facilitates teamwork, critical thinking, overall engagement, leadership development, and so much more. For individuals of all ages and backgrounds, participation in collegiate athletics was a defining moment of their maturational experience and a large part of what formed their character. In addition, athletics has a tremendous recreational aspect and is certainly a beloved exercise. Early critics made sound arguments to separate esports from regular sports, and a variety of obvious distinctions make esports different than traditional athletics. As demands grows, as we learn more about the industry of esports, and the sector becomes more organized, that separation is – rightly – fading.

Typically, colleges add sports and clubs to meet student demands and to help make it easier to meet enrollment targets. Outside of revenue, two key goals for collegiate sports are certainly entertainment and engagement. One obvious reason to launch a varsity esports program is to increase enrollment and retention. The benefits, however, run deeper. Many college athletes and advocates tout how much their sport has helped them become better students, better leaders, better employees, better people. Several arguments made about the benefits of collegiate sports include the ability to manage time more efficiently, learn teamwork and focus, to handle pressure, and to effectively problem solve in various situations. Collegiate esports opportunities provide the valuable lessons of sportsmanship to an entirely new demographic of students who may not have identified as a traditional athlete or grieved the opportunity to find the connection and community that is so commonplace in traditional collegiate sports. Additionally, by providing collegiate esports opportunities, institutions and students mutually benefit: the student feels connected to like-minded peers and exposure to his/her field of interest and the college or university retains a more engaged student.

Esports: A strategy to help fulfill institutional mission?

A few dimensions set esports apart from its traditional counterparts. These dimensions, in many ways, give it the potential to be a mission fulfilling enterprise in a different way than traditional collegiate athletics.

Inclusion: All students can play esports. A clear value of esports lies in its inherent ability to be inclusive, which is especially important for groups that typically are underrepresented in collegiate esports such as students with disabilities. Students with physical disabilities face obvious barriers to participating in collegiate athletics, at least on the same teams and in the same ways as their peers. Esports, due to both its nature and the availability of adaptive equipment, allows students with physical disabilities to participate alongside their team mates and peers, following the same rules and competing at the same level. In addition, particularly of note is the ability of esports to be fully co-ed. 22% of women are involved in esports (Much Needed, 2020).  Young men and women play and compete together on the same teams and are not segregated to men’s or women’s only teams. Abundant research from institutions like Peterson Institute for International Economics, the University of Arizona, and the University of California-Davis reveals that mixed gender teams perform better than single gender teams (Ampoma, 2019). The ability to field diverse teams provides students with tremendous opportunities to make connections with individuals they may never had been exposed to and to collaborate and learn from one another. The college or university wins by churning out well-rounded graduates who bring the lessons and benefits of diversity to the workforce.

Equity: For students who may lack the resources to high-end video game technology consistently at home, collegiate esports programs can level the playing field and help provide access to and appreciation for cutting-edge technology. Esport athletes often use technology to film each other playing games; they also edit sound and video, and even publish how-to tutorials (Raupp, 2020). Through these activities, esport athletes acquire technology skills and a comfort level that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Participation in an emerging industry:  Today’s students are not just good at playing the games but understand – and are in fact helping to design – an industry that people over 35 years of age find baffling. The millennial and Gen-Z groups playing esports have an inside knowledge and instinct about the ecosystem of esports, not just the Xs and Os of the plays. Students think of themselves as experts in a particular game, and while that’s certainly important, it is even more critical to acknowledge that today’s students are in the enviable position to be the consumers whose aptitudes, choices, and preferences will help design the future of this industry. Such an opportunity does not happen in more well-established sectors. This paradigm gives students and esports players an influence they may not even realize they have, as their decisions help to shape the conceptualization of new games, storylines, events, competitions, and products.

Amateur Status ‘Be-Damned:’ Since the NCAA has not entered the esports arena, there is currently no barrier, policy, or eligibility rule against winning prize money as a collegiate esports athlete.  In other words, you can win and take money for prizes, sponsorships, and so on while playing on a college team. The economic opportunities are staggering.

Building curriculum around esports: While some college majors may be sports specific, like sport management, esports seems to be an emerging academic field of study on its own. The Ohio State University recently announced plans to start offering a bachelor of science program in game studies and esports in fall 2020, while Shenandoah University, Becker College, Boise State University, Full Sail University and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology have all created academic programs focused on the digital gaming and entertainment industry (Andersen, 2019). It seems like esports is the first sport to have curriculum built around it. By offering esports majors, concentrations or even projects embedded in traditional academic courses, students get the chance to engage in plug and play opportunities within the esports ecosystem and gain exposure to the numerous new careers the industry is creating. According to Venture Beat, a technology analysis brand, thirty-six countries posted esports jobs in the first quarter of 2018 and the number continues to rise at a neck-breaking incline (Huggan, 2018).

Defining the Opportunity

The context of esports today provides many opportunities for colleges, students, and faculty members. To synthesize the above elements, we would suggest that colleges consider the goal of their participation in esports. If the goal focuses on student recruitment, retention, and engagement (and for most colleges it does), the emphasis must be on providing an inclusive area for a team of diverse student players to come together, compete and bond with their tribe.   Colleges can and should recognize the potential of collegiate esports to bring together students who would otherwise not be playing in the same sphere and can identify esports as a way to diversify its athletic portfolio. Coaches, especially, can place emphasis on inclusion in their recruiting activities and can highlight students who are not traditionally considered the typical picture of an athlete.

Beyond that, colleges should consider how esports can even more meaningfully be integrated into plans to fulfill their mission, given the unique timing of esports’ emersion as a new industry being defined by its consumers – who happen to our students and our esports athletes. Most colleges – maybe even all – have the goal of encouraging students to develop their abilities to think critically and creatively problem solve. What if we help our students think about their own power as consumers to define how esports evolves? What if the next League of Legends or Overwatch game has roots in a project of a collegiate esports team, or group of teams, supported by a curriculum in game design? Our students are in the position to add value to the global esports think-tank, and institutions of higher education should be considering how we can direct and encourage that value.


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