Can college eSports find an audience?

As Riot and Blizzard attempt to offer students a track to pro careers, is there anyone watching?
Heroes of the Dorm American collegiate eSports tournament trophies
It’s not all about silverware in college esports © Volpin Props via Flickr
By Chris Higgins

Encouraging college students to play more computer games might seem like a counter-intuitive way to develop career prospects, but what if they're aiming to be the next eSports superstar?

More and more American colleges are offering scholarships to promising young players in games such as Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm and League of Legends. And now as Riot prepares to broadcast their collegiate uLoL Campus Series, undergrad eSports is coming to the world outside university walls.

But it's hard to picture the future for semi-professional eSports at educational institutions. In their athletic counterparts, university teams and clubs are often the route into a career in sports. American Football and basketball are the most obvious example of this, with a nationwide league, Mad March and TV broadcasts with finals rivalling their professional analogues. With collegiate eSports still in their infancy, can they emulate the successes of the NCAA?

Riot has been working on its collegiate programme for a few years now, which has resulted in more than five universities adopting scholarships for League. Columbia College in Missouri became the latest to offer financial backing to players in November of last year.

"Esports aren't the future," College President, Scott Dalrymple, said in a statement at the time. "They're the present. True skill at video gaming is just as impressive – and just as legitimate – as excellence in traditional sports."

© xynergyLoL

Columbia's team joined the North American Collegiate Championship, alongside some 300 other institutions across the continent. The higher education system in the United States is a rich vein for anyone looking for players in a specific age bracket who are already well-acquainted with the game.

"I think, depending on the region, there is a different appetite for collegiate competition," says Jason Yeh, head of EU eSports at Riot Games. "In the United States, collegiate athletics is the springboard to professional athletics in most sports, particularly the team ones. So there is a very natural path where you can leverage the university and college ecosystem to have organised competition, and to surface talent that can then be picked up by teams."

There is of course the age issue. Many of the world's best gamers are still in their teens: certainly Evil Geniuses had no need of a collegiate system to discover Pakistani Dota 2 prodigy Syed 'Suma1L' Hassan, who in 2015 helped the team to victory at the Dota Asia Championships and The International at the grand old age of 15.

But this route has proven viable for Adrian 'Adrian' Ma, who was picked up by Team Impulse in the last LCS pre-season after attending Robert Morris University on a scholarship. Now he's in the starting line-up for an all-star Immortals squad alongside former Fnatic players Heo 'Huni' Seung-hoon and Kim 'Reignover' Ui-jin. But outside of America, the collegiate route takes a turn before it even gets started.

"In countries where there is already that sort of ecosystem set up for traditional sports, it's a lot easier to tap into for League," Yeh says. "But I think in Europe in general, I've been living in Germany for the past two years, and college athletics – especially when you think about the sports that are most popular, like soccer – you find talent by seeking out players when they're nine to 12, and you put them in academies and they train."

© Activision-Blizzard

This cultural and structural difference is just one of the myriad challenges facing the Riot team as they try to bring collegiate eSports to a wider talent pool across the world – and a wider audience. Of the 300 million Americans in 2012, more than 50 million watched college football. Games are broadcast on national and cable TV, as well as played out in stadiums rivalling their NFL syndicated bigger brothers. Offering the competition at college level is only half the battle: showing it off to the world is the other aim.

Blizzard managed the most high-profile attempt to replicate this reach with Heroes of the Dorm last April, broadcast on the home of American sports, ESPN. Though ratings were nowhere near high enough to suggest a break into the mainstream consciousness, the conversation around the coverage was a net gain for eSports as a whole. With ESPN now doubling down on their eSports efforts, this could be the touchpaper for bringing college eSports not just to the attention of eSports fans, but as an ambassador for games as competition to a wider audience.

But ESPN is still a very American affair, along with Heroes of the Dorm and the uLoL Campus Series. Are there signs of the same varsity sports roots in other regions that can be used to attach the vines of college eSports? Yeh believes even in Europe there are places where sports academies aren't the only existing infrastructure.

"Where that is different is the UK, where for certain sports like rugby and hockey, the university system actually produces the people who go on to be pros," he says. "There is a huge appetite for teams within universities, self-organising and competing against each other. So I think where there are natural divisions into smaller teams and groups, we should take advantage of those structures to promote competition."

Just like with every other aspect of eSports growth, collegiate competition can find its audience given the time and resources. It's a proven career track so far and with the right attention, it could be the perfect chance for crowds to spot up-and-comers waiting to put their mark on the international stage.

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