Tournaments, Training, and Even Scholarships– America's Best Esports Student-Athletes Join College Esports Programs

Professional gaming has been thrust into the spotlight thanks to megastars like Drake and Post Malone and professional sports leagues such as the NFL and NBA. Now, universities across the country are getting their heads in the game. Student-organized clubs and full-fledged varsity esports programs and gaming facilities are giving college-aged esports players new opportunities to embrace their skills, participate in tournaments to win prize money and even earn scholarships to attend university.

Robert Morris University Illinois in Chicago became the first in the country to launch varsity esports programming and offer scholarships to esports student athletes. Robert Morris announced the program in 2014 and was ahead of the curve in advocating for competitive gamers. The Robert Morris Eagles are required to train up to 20 hours weekly and compete year-round with other university esports teams.

Universities like Robert Morris with varsity esports teams treat their esports student-athletes like traditional sports student-athletes. Traditional sports student-athletes have trainers, doctors and coaches; esports student-athletes have the same. Training? Check. Scholarships? Check. Tournaments? Check. State of the art facilities? Check. The NCAA, the athletic association regulating student-athletes in traditional sports, has not yet officially recognized esports, but is exploring the possibility of adding esports to the collegiate sports divisions it oversees.

Even though the NCAA isn’t fully on board yet, esports student-athletes do have a watchdog organization looking out for them. The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) was created in 2016 to help advance collegiate level esports programming. NACE provides positive tools and strategies for development, scholarship money, and assistance after graduation. In 2016, only seven institutions were a part of NACE. In just over two years, 100 institutions (and counting) have developed varsity esports programs and more than 90 percent of those schools are members of NACE, according to the NACE website.

The University of Irvine requires its esports athletes to try out in order to make the team and receive scholarships. Like the Robert Morris University Eagles, UCI Esports must train 15 to 20 hours each week. Typical training includes scrimmages with other teams, reviewing videos on YouTube, weekly physical fitness sessions and mental health check-ins with a team psychologist.

Not all collegiate esports team are as focused on athletics like UCI Esports and Robert Morris Eagles. University of South Carolina’s esports team is an offshoot of the game design program and not part of the university’s athletic department. But the Esports Union’s unique place within game design demonstrates the value of esports, which earned support from Red Bull and Logitech as sponsors that have come together to get the team up and running.

Whether it’s about athletics or the art of gaming, big money is being pumped into esports programs and facilities at universities across the country. Teams are competing in tournaments with prize money upwards of $50,000, which is allowed since esports is not yet part of the NCAA. Student-athletes can receive scholarships anywhere from $4,000 up to $60,000 from schools with esports programs.

When Harrisburg University launched its varsity level esports program in August 2018, more than 100 players worldwide tried out for the 16-member HU Storm, prompting the university to take a closer look at the potential for esports. Harrisburg responded to the interest by investing in its esports programming with a state-of-the-art gaming, practice and tournament facility. Featuring a 700-seat theater for tournaments, the Storm Practicing Facility is equipped with 30 HP-Omen computers, Respawn gaming chairs and a massive 17-screen video wall. The University of Akron also invested in the future of esports programming and built three gaming facilities, at the cost of over $750,000.

Some universities are already seeing the return on their big investments. And, in ground breaking university esports news, apparel brand Champion and Robert Morris University announced Champion as the official apparel sponsor of the Eagles in the 2019-2020 season. The news puts Robert Morris, once again, ahead of the curve. The Champion sponsorship deal helps solidify the fact that esports teams have the ability to expand beyond the niche gaming world to establish their place among the high-profile, high-earning traditional sports teams at American universities. Each university is aligning with esports in a different way, but there’s no doubt a passionate, committed esports community is growing, from club level to varsity level at universities in nearly all 50 states.

If you’d like to make some additions to your college application list, or support teams in your area, be sure to check out the list of North American institutions with varsity level esports programs that are part of NACE.   

Photos courtesy of: Robert Morris University Esports Team