Esports Programs Move the Chains at FBS Schools

Authored by LEAD1 Association and Alex McNeil, Uni Esports Group

Important Note: LEAD1 does not take sole responsibility for the information provided in this report as the content is created by the named contributing authors.

In the last two years, the so-called rise of collegiate esports programs has been a hot topic among higher ed leaders. Esports (a genre of competitive video games) are a new entrant to the roster of many athletic departments across the country, with some programs providing scholarships to varsity recruits. 
The rationale for developing these programs is clear. Large pools of tomorrow’s college-aged population play video games. (According to Pew Research, “fully 97%” of them do.) Seeking creative solutions to enroll and retain students, leaders have turned to esports programs as a new, exciting, and potentially remote student offering. 
But how has COVID-19 affected the development of the esports landscape at US schools? In this brief report, Alex McNeil, co-founder of Uni Esports Group, a higher education consulting firm that helps plan and launch high-impact esports programs, shares his views on the topic.
COVID-19 has Tempered Esports Growth
While COVID-19 has created a major setback for most units across the university organism, a common assumption is that esports programs have actually benefited over the same span. This narrative has proven true, but only to an extent. Esports programs have remained effective remote engagement tools throughout the COVID crisis. Across the board, the rate of program adoption has accelerated. 
However, the day-to-day operations of most programs have been disrupted. Remote “esports athletes” often lack access to the resources and communication tools necessary for programs to support the training, scrimmages, and gameplay review sessions that are normally typical. 
Even the most high-profile esports programs have felt the acute effects of budget and student shortfalls. “Most program leaders are hurting,” said McNeil. “There have been layoffs, plans for gaming centers have been put on hold, and first-year students are struggling to make connections. Almost everyone is holding their breath right now.” 
Collegiate Esports Infrastructure Continues to Develop 
Even given the complications, there have been notable developments in the inter-collegiate infrastructure amid COVID-19.The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) launched an esports division that has engaged over 60 member institutions in the first two seasons of competition. For four-year programs, the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Association (ECAC) has led the charge. A national championship sponsored by Collegiate Sports Management Group (CSMG) is taking place this week. 
As the number of collegiate institutions participating in esports grows, larger players are making their presence known. And new institutions are planning their entrance. 
More than 12 FBS programs administer “varsity” esports programs, including Miami Ohio, Utah, and Boise State. Some recent programs, like the one at the University of Kentucky, have announced partnerships with professional esports organizations and other community partners. Michigan recently made headlines when it announced an alumni donation of $4mm to fund the development of its esports program.
“We’ve seen an uptick in the number of DI institutions seeking help to create a strategic plan for esports,” said McNeil. “We’re collaborating with leaders at several FBS programs and at larger state organizations to map the landscape for esports on campus. The bigger players are recognizing that esports is here to stay.” 
Many of these institutions aren’t yet ready to launch a program. But they’re conducting due-diligence to understand how esports can be used to support student outcomes.
“The questions we’re answering are both pragmatic and mission-driven. Not just, ‘How much will this cost?’ or ‘What about Title IX,NIL, and the NCAA?’ But also, ‘How do we make a program that embodies our commitment to inclusion?’ and ‘How do we balance gaming and learning?’”
Leaders Should Plan for Tomorrow
This deep planning is where McNeil recommends larger institutions spend their time and resources–for now. The lack of NCAA governance is concerning for many, and questions about Title IX compliance pose definite challenges. But that shouldn’t prevent leaders from formulating the institution’s stance vis-a-vis esports. 
“Now is the time to begin addressing questions internally and to start the planning process. If you can build the institutional plan today, tomorrow’s rollout is going to be that much smoother. These questions [about the NCAA, NIL, and Title IX] will be clarified sooner or later. Institutions should be ready for when that day comes.” 
As millions of vaccines are deployed across the county, the haze of COVID-19 has begun to dissipate. Signs point to the reversal of collegiate esports’ slow-down. Competition is heating back up, new schools are tapping in, and an entirely different clan of students are discovering the benefits of organized inter-collegiate competition.

“I think the next 12 months will see the largest growth in new programs so far,” McNeil said. “A new world of college esports is waiting at the end of the pandemic. About that, I have no doubt.”  

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