You’ve heard about esports in the boardroom. You’ve heard your coworkers talk about it by the water cooler. After a long day’s work, you’ve sat down, turned the TV onto TSN to watch the game and discovered that your favorite athletes are now getting into professional gaming too. The world of esports seems almost inescapable.
The collegiate esports scene is rapidly growing. Robert Morris University launched the first varsity esports program in North America in 2014. Now, in 2023, there are nearly 300 schools offering scholarships for students to compete in esports competitions. If you work at a college campus — in athletics & recreation, student life, recruitment & admissions, academics or IT & networking services — effective esports programming should become an essential component of your department's operations. It’s time to educate yourself.
WHAT ARE “ESPORTS”?
Esports are competitive video games. They can be played in teams or individually, on a console or on a computer, in-person or online, in rain or shine, in sickness or in health. Much like traditional sports, it can be difficult to define the essence of an esport. While some might raise an inquisitive eyebrow at the premise of competitive bug-catching in Animal Crossing, by definition, there is no legitimate argument against why it couldn’t be considered an esports event.
The bottom-line is that an esport is any video game title that is played competitively with the intent to win, and the esports industry thrives on the popularity of select titles that attract large quantities of competitors. For students, esports present an opportunity to propel one’s passions into a lifelong career, as a competitor, or in a myriad of other capacities related to esports competition. For college staff, esports are a vehicle through which campus administration can engage current and prospective students in innovative ways.
The vagueness and vastness of esports is initially daunting, but it is precisely this ambiguity that allows for colleges to provide unique esports programming to their students without the confines of strict rules, harsh regulations or the expectation of meeting specific deliverables. Your college’s esports program can look however YOU want it to look. So where do we start from here?
THE FUNDAMENTALS OF AN ESPORTS PROGRAM
An esports program lives on four key pillars: people, infrastructure, events, and opportunity.
First, there are your students. These people are the heart and soul of your operation. Everything that happens in your esports program happens because of these people. They are your competitors, your tournament organizers, your event volunteers, your production crew members, your campaigners, your promoters: your program’s biggest fans. Your program will succeed only through their efforts. Your programming should always have your students' best interest at the forefront.
Next are your stakeholders. Your boss, your boss’s boss, your boss’s boss’s boss. Family and friends of your student body. Endemic and non-endemic businesses seeking to engage with your program through sponsorship and partnership arrangements. Members of your campus and local community, many of whom, through you, will be learning about esports for the first time. Your role as an esports director will force you to learn how to become an esports educator.
Then there’s your support team. And yes, even if you are a one-man-or-woman-show, there are many other people in your network that you can and should collaborate with. Your registrar’s office will help you register prospective students to your program. Your residence coordinator will put them into appropriate housing. Your student advisors will help them build schedules around their competition days that meet their eligibility requirements. Your marketing director will assist you in the creation of promotional materials. If that’s not enough for you, there’s also an entire world of collegiate esports people on the internet waiting for someone to ask them for advice and mentorship (I’m not kidding). These relationships are integral to your program’s growth.
And then there’s you: the program lead. Maybe you’re a former StarCraft II professional. Maybe you’re a parent of two wonderful children that spend way too much time playing Minecraft. Maybe you work in IT and your boss told you to “start doing an esports thing” on your campus. Your leadership is critical in your program because you will be the one who creates your program's culture. Some programs are geared towards competitive success. Others are more interested in providing an inclusive student experience. At the end of the day, you will be the one to decide what your program will accomplish.
The first question many new directors ask when starting out is “What kind of PC should I buy, how many do I need, and why is everything so gosh-darn expensive?” Many of you have seen the prices online of new PC parts and are undoubtedly quaking in your boots at the thought of spending tens of thousands of dollars in your opening year. Here’s a quick reality check for you: You don’t need a multi-million-dollar facility with state-of-the-art hardware to get started. Your esports space could be an empty classroom with a couple of laptops and gaming consoles. Remember that your program will scale over time and being able to demonstrate results with limited resources will help your case far more than it will hurt it.
The key is to operate within your program’s budget. For some of you, that budget will be $0. In my first year running the esports club at Wilfrid Laurier University, I ran events for a club with over 150 members on an operating budget of $250/term. If you’re in a similar boat, get creative! If your students have portable devices, like a laptop or a console, incentivize them to bring them in for tournaments. If most of your students can play from home, run some virtual events. If you have no PCs or consoles, there are plenty of mobile titles that make for good esports events, such as PUBG: Mobile, Pokémon Unite, League of Legends: Wild Rift, and more. Don’t let your current facility (or lack thereof) be your barrier for entry.
If you’ve got a bit more cash to spend, work with your students to build them a space they want to use. Your students will ask the world of you for hardware but are mature enough to understand the pains of operating within financial limitations. First, learn the minimum system requirements for the games you intend to support. Then, ask your students what they recommend. If most of your students plan to use their own peripherals, you can save money on mice and keyboards and prioritize purchasing monitors with a higher refresh rate. The absolute worst thing you can do when designing your space is to design it alone. Don’t pretend to be an expert on things you know nothing about – ASK. YOUR. STUDENTS.
This is where the magic happens. Now that you have your people and your place, it’s time to start designing your product. Will you run tournaments on your campus? Maybe host some watch parties for your students’ favorite esports events? Perhaps you’ll run tryouts for some teams and have them compete in any of the 70+ collegiate competitions that take place each year? The choice is up to you. And if I don’t sound like a broken record yet for saying this, I haven’t said it enough: ASK YOUR STUDENTS what is important to them.
The easiest way to get started is to survey your community. If your program is just starting out and you haven’t even begun promoting it yet, send out a quick all-student email and start gathering intel. I’ve used something like this to collect information from the student body. Feel free to take this and make it your own.
Once you’ve sorted out your plan, it’s time to host your first event. Here’s a quick breakdown on how to do it:
- Plan out your goals and processes. If you’re running a tournament, lay out everything from start to finish. How do people sign up? Where and when will they compete? What do they need to bring? Will it cost them anything? What will the rules/format of the competition be?
It’s always a good idea to get another pair of eyes on your tournament plan. Ask a trusted colleague or turn to the internet for a second opinion. You can find tons of tournaments on websites such as Battlefy or start.gg for inspiration.
- Promote your event. If there are areas on your campus that get a lot of foot traffic, put up posters. If your Zoomer students actually check their emails, work with your marketing department to send out an all-student communication. If they don’t, find them on social media. Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and even Reddit are great places to reach your students.
The greatest promotion tool of all? You! Tell people about your event. Be genuine and enthusiastic. Nothing and no one will sell your event better than you will.
- Communicate with your participants. Once you’ve gotten some registrations, invite people to a shared communication platform. I recommend creating a Discord server as it is easy to use and most of your students will likely be active users on the platform already. If you’re unable to do so, an Outlook email group or Teams chat will suffice in a pinch.
Make sure to communicate all relevant dates/times, updates to the tournament rules, and coordinate teams beforehand to ensure that the event runs smoothly day-of.
- Run your event. The day has finally arrived and it’s time to get started. If you’re fortunate enough to have students on your campus that want to help, get them involved as tournament officiators. If you have social media for your program, live-tweet/post everything. This helps you build a relationship with your community and to start developing proof of performance for sponsors down the road.
Remember: your event does not need to be complex to be effective. It just needs to have heart. Put time into the planning and execution and your passion will speak for itself.
The final and most important pillar is opportunity. Whenever possible, create opportunities for your students. This will be your program’s biggest selling point. If your students feel that they have something to gain from spending their time investing in your program, they will come. For many, it will be the opportunity to pursue their interests in a safe, inclusive environment. Be conscious of this as you design your programming initiatives.
Many students go on from collegiate esports programs to do incredible things. You might create world-class competitors like Dan Clerke’s program at Maryville University, which supports one of the strongest collegiate League of Legends teams in North America. If your program supports a broadcast team, you might create students like Nicholas Tesolin, who graduated from St. Clair College and now works as a professional esports broadcast director. Maybe you’ll take a different route and model your program after Chris Postell’s program at the University of Cincinnati, which prepares students for their future STEM careers.
The moral of the story is that it doesn’t matter what your esports program does as long as it does it in the name of student opportunity.
If you’re brand new to the world of esports and are struggling to figure out where to start, take a second to stop, think, and feel. There is no “right” way to run an esports program. The right way is to do it YOUR way. Be inquisitive during your discovery. Be innovative with your strategy. Be fearless in your approach.
If you’re still feeling lost, just remember: esports are about sharing your love of competitive gaming with others. Find a game that your students are inspired by and give them the opportunities that you wished you had when you were a college student. Don’t be scared to ask your peers for help. We all want each other to grow. Besides, better esports programs lead to better intercollegiate competition.
I look forward to seeing our teams compete against each other soon!
Written by: Shadi Hanna, Head Coach of Esports at Keyano College, Canada
In collaboration with: Karen Lokey, Associate Director of Information Technology Services at the University of Rhode Island, USA