Universities have long been a major force on the North American sports scene, but now, it's not only the football or basketball players who are getting all the accolades. Collegiate eSports are now very much on the rise.
Electronic sports are sports. Or maybe they are not, depending on who you ask. However, there is no denying the fact that gaming and eSports have taken hold of a major portion of an entire generation. Nowadays, traditional television programming doesn#t attract young people to the small screen in the way it once did. Instead, the vast majority of young people are much more likely to be found on things like Facebook and Twitter - or playing or watching others play computer games.
The ecosystem that is behind eSports bears a stark resemblance to that of traditional sports, and in terms of viewership they are quickly catching up to them. Brands such as the shaving products giant Gillette and the US fast-foot chain Arby's are among the sponsors that one wouldn't immediately associate with gaming, but are now taking the plunge into this growth market. Wherever there are sports, there will always be eSports, and US campuses are just the latest to follow this trend.
The rise of Collegiate eSports
Enter the Collegiate Starleague (CSL), the biggest college eSports organizer in North America. It was founded in 2009 as a StarCraft tournament.
"We were the first organization to network colleges across North America for eSports competition," Theresa Gaffney, editor-in-chief of the CSL's website, told DW in a recent interview. Since then, games such as League of Legends, Dota and Counter-Strike have found their way into the organization. "There are over 1000 teams registered in the CSL. Some schools have more than one team registered in different divisions. I believe over 500 schools are represented in our league."
In traditional types of sports in the United States in particular, college teams are critical to the development of young talent.
"The establishment of collegiate leagues can potentially become a natural pathway of talent to the pro scene, as it already has been for some League of Legends players," Gaffney said.
For traditional sports this is even more important, because while gamers can meet up on computer servers without having to leave the house, football or basketball players need to find places to train and universities are among the best placed to provide them with coaching and training facilities. Nonetheless, private eSports teams are being held back by their lack of access to professional advice and financial support. There are plenty of online leagues to play in, but the public is not really interested in this level of competition.
The absence of grassroots eSports development
While top tournaments can rake in millions of viewers for their biggest competitions, smaller tournaments and smaller leagues are pretty much left behind. DreamHack is a renowned tournament organizer of Counter-Strike, which attracts top teams to its competitions. The E-Sports Entertainment Association (ESEA), on the other hand, operates the Premier League, which is the second division to the ESL Pro League in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), and has only a few top clubs.
According to the Social Media statistics site "SocialBlade," there is a huge disparity in viewing numbers for these two leagues when they are broadcast on Twitch, a streaming website that primarily focuses on gaming. While DreamHack gets almost three million views on an average tournament weekend, ESEA averages around 8.000 views per day.
From the perspective of a viewer, this is completely understandable. The production quality of smaller tournaments does not compare to a stadium event and there are plenty of top matches to be seen elsewhere. But for the grassroots development of eSports titles, this is devastating, because it means that up-and-coming players struggle for exposure and it makes scouting young talent rather difficult. Sponsors are spending a great deal of money on the biggest teams, thus widening the salary gap. While top players can earn up to $25.000 per month, players on a team at the bottom of the top 30 often is not even being paid at all.
The importance of collegiate teams
Jonathan Oh is a former vice president and advisor for the Washington Gaming Association, an eSports club at the University of Washington in Seattle. The university competes in a variety of eSports, most notably Hearthstone, CS:GO and League of Legends in CSL.
"We connect gamers through social media with our various club groups. In terms of eSports, we have teams who have practice throughout the week in preparation for large-scale tournaments or events," Oh told DW.
The collegiate system can make the lower tiers of eSports accessible and more attractive for views. Bu, most importantly, it can provide the means for up-and-coming players to compete and to improve. College teams have coaches, support staff and training facilities, and the University of Washington is at the forefront of this development.
"Currently, we're in the process of getting an eSports arena which will be a centralized location for gamers and players to compete or play through the university," Oh said.
This past May, the CSL hosted the Collegiate Grand Finals north of the border in Toronto. Up for grabs was $100.000 (85,000 euros) in scholarships, which was awarded to dozens of university teams across multiple games. This is the sort of event that is needed to help build a strong foundation, and eventually many of these collegiate contenders will likely go on to professional careers.
As Theresa Gaffney put it; "Esports clubs on campuses have the power to expose more people to competitive video gaming, which is only positive for all eSports. We should encourage growth on the college level as much as possible."