Varsity Esports Redefines Relationship Between Athletics, Academics

In varsity esports, a college education could be a reward, not a hindrance

While more young men and women watch esports than traditional sports and esports tournaments viewership often vastly overshadow most major traditional sporting events, collegiate esports remains in its infancy with just 78 varsity teams in the country.

“We’re trying to create a sense of, ‘We’re serious about this, so it should be taken seriously,’” Phill Alexander, a professor of game design at Miami University and co-director of the university’s varsity esports team, told a gathering at this year’s Game Developers Conference. “Legitimizing varsity esports can be difficult sometimes.”

Alexander says he thinks that struggle is in part because of a generational perception.

"Many of the people in higher positions, who influence how esports is viewed, have a limited understanding, just because esports as we know it is such a recent development," he later told Glixel. "I haven’t had many people disagree that varsity esports is valuable once they’ve listened to me explain it, but there’s a generation who think of it as just being kids playing games. Ironically, that same thing could be said of varsity sports if one was reductive. I think it’s that bias, though, sort of like the bias against Dungeons & Dragons in the 80s or Mortal Kombat in the 90s. Some people listen to only a few sources and get a skewed sense of what is actually happening. "

Miami University’s varsity esports team is, perhaps, a good example of that struggle in the face of success. Varsity esports launched at the Ohio university in 2015, but esports was already supported by a thriving club on campus. Launched in 2012, the club now has 488 members on a campus with a student body of just 19,500.

The varsity team started in 2015 when a student came to Alexander to talk about the idea. “The president of the esports club came to me and asked, ‘Why can’t we have a varsity team?’ and I said to her, ‘I don’t know why.’ Off of that energy of her pushing, it happened.”

The varsity team’s training facility was created in a disused conference room in the back of the library, he says. The room was gutted, redecorated and loaded up with high-end computers, gaming chairs and team colors. The Redhawks become the first division 1 varsity esports team, established at at time when there were only six other varsity teams in existence.

Now the Redhawks have three teams - competing in Hearthstone, League of Legends and Overwatch - and most recently the Overwatch team won the 2017 National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) season. Miami beat Georgia Southern University in the December title match.

Despite the success at Miami, the varsity team still struggles to earn the same level of financial support, scholarship offerings, and equipment and space as more traditional sports.

Alexander says that currently there are about 1,600 collegiate esports club programs hosted by about 600 universities and 78 varsity teams. The average scholarship offered by those varsity teams is $7,000 a year - Miami offers $8,000 - and a few offer a full ride.

Miami even has a “hatcher program,” that acts as a sort of junior varsity program on campus, working to train-up and bring in the best esports players, but Alexander believes enough isn’t being done to try and attract players to the university’s team.

Once someone lands on the team, Alexander and the team’s coach work with the team to make sure that they’re not just excelling in their sport of choice, but also doing well academically.

The teams practice at least nine hours a week, more if they want to on their own. They also go through physical training, calisthenics, jogging and teamwork exercise.

Part of his job, Alexander says is making sure that players don’t get burnout from playing. “The other side is trying to make sure that the students coming in to the program can’t neglect being a college student to play. We try to make sure they’re going to have a good balance.

“We try to keep close tabs on them.”

While a number of organizations have shown some interest in collegiate esports, including the NCAA, ultimately none of them became involved, leaving it to NACE. “Many of the athletic conferences are considering getting involved too, they’re interested, but no one has moved forward,” Alexander says.

He later added that he thinks this is just the start for collegiate esports.

"I don’t think the NCAA will get involved, but I think a body (or a series of smaller conferences) will emerge and we will start to see large scale competition," he says. "I’m excited to see where things will go, but I’ll be shocked if we don’t see major collegiate varsity leagues by 2020."

While there are some surface similarities between traditional sports and esports, Alexander thinks there are some major key differences too.

For instance, he sees the connection between pro players and college reversed from traditional sports. In esports, he says, most pro-gamers’ careers end at 27 or 28 and then they want to go back to school. The result is that the varsity esports programs could become a way to draw in those retiring esports who could play for a university team and earn a scholarship at the end of their career, rather the beginning.

On some level, it seems that the approach to varsity esports and some of the byproducts that come with it could give life to a new approach to the relationship between college academics and athletics.

"I spent five years at Michigan State, and I had an opportunity to meet Magic Johnson who is an alum," Alexander says. "He advises athletes to think about life after pro sports, and I think that in a perfect world we could build that culture. I told an MSU student who is now in the NFL to remember that his career as a football player would likely end at the age my academic career started. There’s a huge second act for athletes and esports players. I encouraged him to plan to return and finish his degree. I love the idea that we are about to see a generation of students in their mid-20s who have been esports superstars. I have a theory that they will perform even better than our typical students (who are amazing) because of the maturity and experience."