Educational institutions in the United States have long promoted and prided themselves on their campus grounds, endowments, opportunities, and student achievements. Student life and athletics are also powerful messages and motivators for applicants, and can be the deciding factor when students are choosing between multiple institutions. Comprehensive esports programs effectively combine these two ideas, offering modern education and skills necessary to enter a growing industry while creating a new competitive team for the school to promote.
As a result of growing esports popularity and institutions’ recognition of its educational value, esports competitions have made their way into the hearts and minds of students and youths across the country. An increasing number of schools are launching esports clubs and competition teams as extracurricular activities that appeal to a broad range of students and can excite fans and viewers all over the world.
Esports Takes on Traditional Sports
For institutions of learning, particularly schools that compete for student enrollment, having an established esports program or team can help them stand out the same way a good football or volleyball team can attract both student athletes and fans. Knowing that only 54 percent of youths participate in traditional sports in a given year, educators and school officials have come to appreciate the surging popularity of gaming among young people raised in a fully-connected society, as well as the opportunity to relate various courses and educational disciplines to careers in gaming and digital media.
As of the 2022 school year, 175 colleges and universities have joined the National Association of College Esports (NACE), which officially recognizes varsity esports programs, up from just seven at its founding in 2016. Many of the member schools became involved in esports through student-run clubs that eventually joined organized leagues and merited investments in equipment or space to enable competitive play.
Some colleges have even begun offering full scholarships to talented players, with Harrisburg University being the first to award full rides to an entire 16-person esports team in 2018. The team won ESPN’s inaugural Collegiate esports Championship in May 2019.
A larger number of member schools have launched partial scholarship programs, awarding anywhere from $500 to $8,000 to individuals. These benefits draw applicants from all over the world, with a competitive application process that often involves visiting the campus for a tryout. To streamline and popularize the process for students, some schools now issue recruiting forms specific to esports where applicants can detail their experience, share their public social profiles and submit highlight reels for consideration.
As the competition heats up and attracts ever-larger investments and public attention, the number of participating schools is likely to continue growing, with more four-year, two-year and even vocational institutions joining the fray.
Starting from Scratch
In order for fledgling esports programs to deliver meaningful experiences for students, they must first evaluate and consider whether their existing computer gear and infrastructure are sufficient to perform at a competitive level. The games played in competitions typically require up-to-date gaming PCs with powerful graphics cards, while high-quality monitors and peripherals can greatly boost player effectiveness thanks to higher picture quality and brightness, better contrast, clearer communication with teammates and highly responsive input devices.
Some programs have succeeded in repurposing existing equipment and spaces to provide a cost-effective opportunity without encountering opposition, which has been a popular model for middle schools and high schools. While esports is indeed growing quickly, there can still be obstacles, particularly at the K-12 level, in attaining funding and support from school boards or administrators responsible for a wide range of student and community needs.
Luckily, schools can fund their programs relatively quickly by applying for various esports-specific STEM grants. These grants, such as ByteSpeed and Frey Scientific, provide equipment money so schools can promote esports while navigating tight budgets.
Schools can also apply for broader grants by demonstrating the link between scholastic esports STEAM. There are many state, federal, and foundation grants that award dollars to projects that provide proven skill development and learning outcomes in the STEAM disciplines.
The opportunities are virtually limitless for educators to tie instruction or even entire courses to the many esports careers that fall within STEAM disciplines, including graphic design, computer coding, 3D animation, broadcasting, engineering and more.
Building the Pipeline
Bolstered by such grants, middle school and high school esports programs are popping up all over the country as students express greater interest in the scholarships and opportunities on offer.
In response, higher education institutions and nonprofits are bringing together middle school, high school and collegiate esports players to strengthen the flow of students from one education level to the next. For example, The North America Scholastic esports Federation (NASEF) partners with the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) to help youth esports players connect with relevant college recruiters and gain insight into opportunities for scholarships, events and quality education. Partnerships like this are a testament to a growing esports education ecosystem, one that’s cultivated from the ground up.
Institutions and administrators that want to address the widest swath of student interests and attract diverse student populations are helping put esports on an equal footing with traditional sports. Through the rise of educational scholarships, famous student players, and even fortunes made possible by recent changes allowing student athletes to sign sponsorship deals, it’s clear that esports has become an important campus activity and will continue to be an enrollment driver as the industry matures.
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