In almost every conversation that’s ever taken place about the esports industry, there has been one driving concept.
For those invested in the industry, one goal to push towards. For those who were a bit more skeptical, one point of contention. For both, one major focus. Legitimacy.
People in the esports industry, above all else, want their work to be seen as legitimate. Players want to be seen as professionals, skilled laborers with something to contribute to society. Managers and organizers, tech guys and sound guys, writers and content creators (like me!) all want to be seen as more than a bunch of nerds wasting their time on video games.
Many of those people (like me!) are in college. Oftentimes, that makes things even worse. If you’re trying to balance going pro with managing your grades, you’re usually gonna have a bad time. That might be changing soon, though.
Play to Pay
Today, more than ever, colleges are stepping up to support these “nerds” in pursuing their passion. With the rise of professional esports leagues and increased esports visibility, universities across the country have introduced scholarship programs for budding collegiate esports stars.
UC Berkeley, for instance, recently announced the development of an esports community center in partnership with local franchise NRG Esports. NRG’s Chairman and Founder Andy Miller also owns the Overwatch League’s San Francisco Shock.
In the same press release, Miller explained the logic behind these big moves. “By investing in this esports program, we’re investing in the future: technology, reinvented community, new learning models, and of course, the students.”
“Not only is UC Berkeley one of the most prestigious institutions for higher learning in the world, but it also runs the best collegiate esports program in the country. We look forward to the many things we can do together not just in our Northern California market, but hopefully throughout the esports community as well.”
Always an industry leader, Cal have also announced a partnership with League of Legends developer Riot Games. This agreement paves the way for Berkeley to launch the inaugural League of Legends Intramural Esports League this fall. More importantly, it gives Cal the chance to eventually provide scholarships for these new student-athletes, keeping them afloat as they balance academics and competition.
“We’re pleased to add another dimension through a new intramural league and scholarships,” Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Stephen Sutton said. “We’re looking forward to advancing the potential of our students and of collegiate esports with this partnership between Cal and an industry giant like Riot Games.”
Accent on the “U”
Berkeley aren’t the only ones getting in on the collegiate esports scene, though. Ashland University, a comparatively sleepy college of 5700 students in a 20,000 strong Ohio town, are stepping up to match the Golden Bears’ efforts
They’re offering prospective students up to $4000 a year to play for the school’s Fortnite team, and have programs in other major franchises like Overwatch, CS:GO, and League of Legends. On top of the scholarship, all the players get a full peripheral kit, complete with keyboard, mouse, and headset. With coaches and training centers decked out with the latest equipment, it’s clear that Ashland are in for a penny, in for a pound.
Ashland’s all-in approach has clearly paid off. With articles written by journalistic giants this level of visibility is unprecedented for a school so small. Yet here we are, talking about a school that may very well change the face of collegiate esports forever.
Collegiate esports as a stepping stone
What’s special about these new programs is not their novelty. It’s what their adoption represents in the overall esports picture. Universities big and small see esports as a chance to make money and bring recognition to their own brand. More importantly, they are recognizing esports as a legitimate enterprise for their students to pursue alongside a degree.
Now more than ever, collegiate esports can be used as a stepping stone to greater careers in the industry. Ashland University’s Overwatch team could field the next Overwatch League star. Cal’s intramural leagues could show us the next big League of Legends team, or the next big pickup in CS:GO. With a degree in hand, these new players won’t have to worry about what to do when their esports career is over. Skeptics won’t be able to sneer about their lack of education or life skills, either. They’ll have everything they need to succeed, in and out of the esports industry. I can’t think of anyone who loses in that situation.
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Featured photo Courtesy of Epic Games