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College esports grow through the pandemic

The programs didn’t face the same challenges as regular sports


iStock.com/Nikolay Tsuguliev

College esports grow through the pandemic

On a typical Tuesday afternoon, coach George Nielsen reviews game tape with his team of 10 Utah Valley University students. Thursdays, they scrimmage with other schools, and once a week they compete. But unlike many sports teams, Nielsen’s hasn’t faced much disruption from the pandemic. His esports players meet for practice in a chat channel and compete over the internet.

Pandemic safety restrictions that wiped out traditional sports seasons often barely touched esports, online multiplayer video game competitions. Tournaments changed from rows of gamers packed in computer labs to players logged on from home. School teams continued their steady pre-pandemic growth, and players used to socializing online kept in touch. Though coaches worry about addiction and bullying in online video games, the pandemic has underlined esports’ ability to reach otherwise isolated students.

From a handful of teams in 2011, college esports have expanded to at least 400 clubs and 200 school-sponsored programs in North America, according to research by Esports Foundry, a consulting company for schools starting teams. Some even offer scholarships, though a recent Associated Press study estimated the average payout was a modest $1,910. Most college esports programs have so far escaped pandemic budget cuts, the study reported. High schools have also launched esports teams, many led by computer or math teachers who use the games to encourage students to pursue STEM careers.

Audiences for esports, meanwhile, grew from almost 400 million in 2019 to more than 430 million last year, according to market research company Newzoo. Gamers shelled out $22.2 billion for mobile games alone in 2021’s first quarter, up 25 percent from that period in 2020. Esports school teams saw more modest growth. Esports Foundry said participation increased as usual in 2020, with programs adding an average of 15 players.

Coaches acknowledge gaming can fuel isolation. Research has suggested video game violence may increase real-life aggression, and some players spend hundreds of hours a week gaming alone. Luke Trotz coaches esports at Pennsylvania’s Saint Francis University. “Some people don’t even use a headset online by themselves, because they don’t want to talk to other people,” he said.

And when players do interact, sometimes that causes its own problems. Team fantasy game League of Legends, popular with college programs, is known for bullying in its chat threads. Penn State’s esports club banned two of its players last week for disparaging a female opponent.

Still, coaches see advantages to school gaming. Christian schools with teams often argue they provide an opportunity for students who skip typical athletics to learn sportsmanship and teamwork. Nielsen said that, particularly when he coached high schoolers, players new to team sports frequently contradicted him during practice. He coached them on offering strategy ideas respectfully. He confronted one player who, though shy in person, bullied a female teammate during games. “He’s realized he needs to have more humility, that he’s not always right,” Nielsen said. “This is a good framework for them to iron out some of those rough edges.”

And unlike traditional sports, players continued to play despite COVID-19. Bubba Gaeddert, head of Varsity Esports Foundation, noted gamers with strong home internet can still play and receive coaches’ feedback. “A majority of them are still meeting at home, playing on their own consoles or on their own computers, or even maybe a device that the school gave them for distance learning,” he said. “It is more pandemic-proof because you can still have that practice, that team culture, and the competition.”

Nielsen’s players stayed in touch over a chat channel, and as restrictions ease, they’ve met for meals. Though some are married or involved in several extracurriculars, he said the team is a social lifeline for others. “The league team is kind of like a second family,” Nielsen said. “I know a few, they really count on it.”


Esther Eaton

Esther reports on politics for WORLD from Washington. She is a World Journalism Institute and Liberty University graduate and enjoys bringing her parakeets on reporting trips.

@EstherJay10

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Laura W

That's one thing I've really valued about the online games I've been involved with--there's a much smaller hurdle to spending time with your friends and doing something together. Especially lately.

Brightnsalty

There are 168 hours in a week - do some gamers really spend "hundreds of hours a week" playing?

Also I'd bet that the demographics of those who play and pay for mobile games (where that $22.2 billion figure comes from) and those who play and follow esports are drastically different - the former is much broader and more casual, spanning a wide age range, while the latter seem much fewer but more deeply invested in gaming, probably skewed towards younger men.