Since the fall of 2016, the number of colleges that have varsity eSports programs has jumped from six to more than 70. This fall, Northeast Ohio’s two largest universities will start offering scholarships for students who are skilled at battling futuristic robots, jungle monsters, and warlocks. So what does that mean for the universities and their students?
It’s a recent Saturday at Kent State University. About two-dozen students – competitors and spectators – have gathered in the 6,327-seat MAC Center for the school’s first eSports tournament. Two announcers are describing a matchup in the video game “Overwatch.” Chris Venable, a junior who is president of the school’s video-game club, is among the small crowd watching.
“’Overwatch’ is a first-person shooter, team-based game that you [pick] out of -- right now I believe -- over 20 characters. A team of six: everyone goes in and does a certain objective.”
The game is set 60 years in the future, and players control a task force that has to maintain order in the face of an army of robots threatening Earth.
Back to school from the future
What does that have to do with college students in Northeast Ohio in 2018? This fall, they’ll be able to apply for scholarships and join varsity teams to play “Overwatch” and games such as “Hearthstone” and “League of Legends” at Kent State, the University of Akron, and other schools in Northeast Ohio.
Junior Zachary Blanner is a play-by-play announcer who covers eSports at Kent State. He called the action at last month’s eSports tournament.
“It makes me really happy to see that something that I care about -- as much as some people care about sports and things like that -- is starting to get a lot of recognition." And, he adds, he's happy to that it involves scholarship money and a way to represent his school.
Setting the stage
The eSports tournament used the MAC Center, where Kent State’s basketball, gymnastics, volleyball and wrestling teams usually compete. There were 12 computers on a stage and a large screen behind them for spectators to follow the action. Players wear headsets with microphones to communicate strategy and tips.
eSports teams don’t require weight rooms, training facilities, or physical therapists, and they usually don't require much travel, either, since teams play online. Fans can follow the action on websites such as Twitch.TV.
Schools launch their own channels to get sponsorship dollars. There’s even a way for viewers to send money during the matchups to support their team. Steve Toepfer runs the program at Kent State, and says the school is hoping that offering eSports will make students want to come to Kent.
A sedentary sport
Toepfer acknowledges that there’s a potential downside for eSports varsity athletes.
“As a matter of fact, we’ve gotten a lot of pushback: ‘Hey, why do we want to support this when it’s sedentary?’
"My answer to that is usually: These guys are doing this anyway. But with the program in place, we can even monitor them better. We can try and help them be more well-rounded. This is no longer playing in a dark basement. Now it’s become a real social event.”
Toepfer is a professor of human development and says Kent plans to study the game’s effects on players. Michael Fay runs the eSports program at the University of Akron and says they’ll be doing the same.
“There’s a lot to learn about how videogames can affect focus and attention and things like that. And so we’re looking to help offer some courses here – inter-disciplinary courses – that help students, in their particular profession, figure out what the eSports specialization of that profession might be.”
At Kent State’s recent tournament, junior Tanner Yingling explained what skills he’s gleaned from playing on his “Overwatch” team.
“It becomes more comfortable with who you’re playing with and how you can efficiently communicate to your team without distracting them or filling the voice chat with unnecessary callouts -- or just being obnoxious. So I think efficiency in communication itself is very important. And I think I can take that into real life.”
Kent State and the University of Akron say offering varsity eSports will attract new students, but it’s too soon to know what the true impact will be both to enrollment and the schools’ bottom lines.