In today’s world, having an online presence is becoming more common and encouraged. In fact, video games is no longer considered a toy. Esports and the rise of gaming has led to many different competitive leagues being created and heavily funded. Colleges have noticed this trend. Universities have started to form their own competitive teams and are now offering video game scholarships to students. There are now varsity esports, college esports, and college programs completely dedicated to video games and esports. So how did this all come about?
Creation and Growth of Esports
If you’re over 30, there’s a good chance that you remember LAN parties. They were a wonderful form of socializing for PC nerds prior to the proliferation of online multiplayer, in which a gaggle of people would lug their giant computer cases and eyeball-eroding CRT monitors into somebody’s basement, connect to one another via ethernet cables, and play classics like Doom, Unreal Tournament and Quake.
With the advent of long-distance multiplayer, LAN parties became anachronistic practically overnight—but the competitive spirit of whooping your friends’ collective butts in fast-paced multiplayer games was only invigorated by this paradigm shift. National tournaments like QuakeCon and Warcraft competitions began to dominate the gaming scene, thus giving rise to what would soon be recognized as a new form of non-physical athletics: Esports.
South Korea’s mass broadband internet initiative, combined with a high rate of unemployment, lead to an explosion in the field, starting with the addition of the Korean e-Sports Association to the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in 2000—but esports, as we know it today, didn’t properly kick off until the 2000s. The number of tournaments grew like wildfire, and as a result, the offered reward for winning these competitions skyrocketed.
In the early 2010s, the proliferation of online streaming lead to an increased interest in esports, and the success of MOBAs like League of Legends and DOTA 2—as well as fighting games like Super Smash Bros. and shooters like Counter-Strike—spawned thousands of teams worldwide to compete in global competitions, complete with big-name advertisers and huge payouts for winning teams.
Classifying competitive video games as a sport has always been controversial, to say the least, but it was impossible to deny the intense fan interest and revenue that these events were generating. By 2015, foreign nationals were receiving visas in new countries and immigrating to play video games, and most developed nations began to recognize a need to organize and regulate esports.
Esports and Video Game Scholarships
In the United States, collegiate athletics programs couldn’t help but see the budding industry—projected to be worth $1.5 billion by 2020—and put into action their own plans to grab a slice of the pie. Universities began to offer partial scholarships for esports, but as esports’ ubiquity grows, full ride varsity scholarships are becoming more common. The practice began with Robert Morris University in Illinois, but as of 2018, over 60 esports programs have been approved by the National Association of Collegiate Esports, and though the NCAA has only flirted with the notion of getting in on the ground floor of esports, it seems impossible that they won’t soon be involved in some way.
The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) is the national governing body for all college esports. Founded in 2016, the NACE has over $9 million available in video game scholarship money, video game scholarships, and financial aid. It is the only organization for varsity esports at participating colleges and universities. Colleges with esports teams range from large division 1 schools, to small private colleges with division 3 athletics. To learn more about the NACE, visit their website.
Below is a video of a news broadcast detailing how esports and video game scholarships are becoming a commonplace at colleges.
Popular Esports Games
Considering it was the most significant starting point for esports, it’s unsurprising that League of Legends remains the most popular competitive game in the industry. That said, League isn’t the only option for competitive gamers: Battle Royale games like Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite have become tremendously popular, as well as strategic team-based shooters like Rainbow Six: Siege and Overwatch. Unsurprisingly, the originating genre of video game tournaments—fighting games—are still going strong, with titles like Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros. attracting huge audiences.
Now that you know a little about the history of esports, video game scholarships, and the opportunities available in the fledgling industry, you might be asking yourself—how can I get in on this? There are dozens of accredited universities that offer scholarships for esports competitors, and their selection processes are typically based on talent and space availability.
To help you get an idea of where you might pursue video game scholarships, we’ve compiled a short list of some of the top-tier NACE programs, ranked by school accreditation and team success.
1. Miami University
Miami of Ohio, based in Oxford, Ohio, is the second-oldest university in the state. Well known for its liberal arts program, it offers over 100 undergrad programs, 60 graduate programs, and provides degrees in the sciences, the humanities, engineering, business, and architecture. Given that it’s one of the original eight Public Ivy schools, it’s unsurprising that Miami University is at the top of our list.
Miami University also has an extremely talented esports program. Up and running since 2016, they are the most prestigious university with a competitive team, and in 2017 they won the NACE Overwatch season. Their League of Legends team is equally noteworthy, reaching the NACE invitational finals. Outside of their actual competitive teams, Miami University offers its own esports course and allows students to minor in digital gaming.
Combine their competitive teams’ NACE track record with their impressive academic history, a beautiful campus and a well-ranked nightlife, and you’ve got our top pick. That said, Miami University’s prestigious status means that securing video game scholarships to the school won’t be a cake walk. Be prepared to work hard both in the classroom and in practice.
2. University of Utah
The University of Utah is Utah’s flagship university and boasts over 100 undergrad majors and nearly as many graduate programs, including the reputable S.J. Quinney College of Law and Utah’s first medical school. Utah’s historical student body has its own impressive reputation, having played host to four Nobel Prize winners, eight MacArthur Fellows, 22 Rhodes Scholars, and two astronauts, and it’s ranked the 12th most ideologically diverse university in the United States.
2017 saw the introduction of Utah’s varsity esports team and a new undergrad program, a bachelors of science in “Games.” As a state school, Utah’s tuition is considerably more affordable than more recognizable universities, but its graduates’ average post-graduate income is an impressive $55,000 annually.
The first esports program from a Power Five athletics conference school, Utah fields four esports teams for Overwatch, League of Legends, Rocket League and Hearthstone.
3. University of California Irvine
One of 10 UC campuses, Irvine has 80 undergrad degrees and nearly a hundred graduate programs. It’s the youngest university to hold membership with the Association of American Universities—a major binational organization of research universities consisting of 60 universities in the US and two in Canada. They also host the UC Irvine Medical Center, a teaching hospital; an arboretum; and part of UC’s Natural Reserve System.
The second largest Orange County employer, Irvine’s economic impact is considered to be over $5 billion, and it also offers residency programs for physicians and certificate programs for non-graduates. A huge chunk of its student body identify themselves as gamers, and it shows: Irvine’s esports program, started in 2015, is top-tier, and has even lead to the building of an esports arena on campus.
Irvine won the 2018 League of Legends Championship and also fields a competitive Overwatch team. They also hosted the 2018 Girls in Gaming Summer Camp and a Summer Overwatch Bootcamp, so it’s clear as day that Irvine is serious about esports. Between the excellent education you’ll receive at Irvine, and its highly competitive esports teams, they’re a clear cut winner for any aspiring competitive gamer.
4. Georgia Southern University
Georgia Southern was one of the first universities to offer video game scholarships. They have been fielding esports teams since 2012, making it one of the earlier pioneers in the industry. The largest center of post-secondary education in southern Georgia, it offers nearly 150 majors and boasts an enrollment of over 27,000 students from every single state and more than 80 countries around the world.
The university hosts the Center for Wildlife Education and cares for the Effingham Wetlands, over 1,400 acres of land that function as a live laboratory. Georgia Southern is also the base of operations for multiple famous student publications, such as The George-Anne and The Reflector.
Georgia Southern has six established esports teams playing in Overwatch, League of Legends, SMITE, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Rocket League and Call of Duty. Innovative in the field, they employ part-time coaches for each time, all of which are high-ranking players themselves, ensuring that their players are in top shape for competitions.
5. Illinois Wesleyan University
Despite its status as an industry newcomer—they just started competing in the 2018-2019 season—IWU is off to an excellent start when it comes to adopting esports. Like Irvine, IWU has their own facilities for their esports teams to practice in, and for their first season, they hired esports veteran Callum Fletcher as their head coach.
While most of the entries on this list are research universities, IWU is an undergrad-only liberal arts college. They offer opportunities to study abroad, as well as one of the most impressive university libraries in the country—not to mention over 200 student organizations and an in-house radio station.
Though IWU only fields one League of Legends team right now, it’s not unlikely that they’ll expand their program as it experiences success in the coming competitive seasons.
6. Ashland University
A private non-profit university in Ohio, Ashland offers a wide array of undergrad majors, nine pre-professional programs, and one of the most expansive education programs for aspiring educators in the State. Comprised of four colleges—Arts and Sciences, Education, Business and Economics, and Nursing and Health Sciences—Ashland provides plenty of paths for education to prospective competitors. They even host a Theological Seminary for a doctorate of ministry degree and several masters programs.
Ashland fields seven esports teams—more than any other university on this list—in Hearthstone, Rocket League, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Fortnite, League of Legends, Overwatch and Starcraft 2. They offer video game scholarships up to $4,000, and present team players with a suite of gaming accessories, including a keyboard, mouse, mousepad, and headset.
Like other entries on the list, Ashland has its own state-of-the-art gaming center and professional couches on hand to tutor team members, not to mention regular seminars from professional competitors and important figures in the industry.
7. Bellevue University
A private non-profit in Nebraska, Bellevue is one of the younger universities on this list. With approximately 10,000 students, a smattering of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and a singular Ph.D. program, Bellevue isn’t the most prestigious university in the world—though its online classes are particularly reputable.
In the 2017-2018 school year, Bellevue only fielded a single League of Legends team, but during the 2018-2019 year, they added an Overwatch team to their roster. In their first year, Bellevue’s League of Legends team reached the knockout stage of the AVGL Collegiate League of Legends Championship and the playoffs of the RIOT College League of Legends North Conference.
In September of 2018, both of Bellevue’s teams performed well at the Harrisburg University eSports Festival, their Overwatch team reaching the semifinals and their League of Legends team gracing the quarterfinal round of competitions.
With a strong start to their second season, there’s no doubt that Bellevue will continue to improve their program into 2019.
8. Georgia State University
Located in downtown Atlanta, GSU is the largest university in Georgia, totaling nearly 52,000 students at their main campus. Offering over 250 undergrad and graduate degree programs and hosting a university and law library, GSU is considered the most comprehensive public institution in Atlanta—and it produces more than one and a half billion dollars in revenue annually for Atlanta.
GSU doesn’t offer a full-ride scholarship program for its esports teams, but it does provide supplemental scholarships for NACE competitors, and the Georgia eSports League plans to provide video game scholarships for winning students at statewide events. While they currently only offer League of Legends and Smite teams, it seems inevitable that GSU will expand its esports program in the years to come, and possibly become a serious competitor one day.
9. Boise State University
The largest university in Idaho, BSU has over 100 graduate programs to choose from, including Masters and Ph.D. programs in engineering, the arts and the sciences, and education. Their library, Albertson’s Library, houses over half a million books, and their 107 public computers have access to over 300 online databases.
BSU also boasts the largest graduate enrollment in Idaho, with 76% of its student base being Idaho residents. Unlike GSU, BSU offers a varsity esports scholarship, fielding teams for League of Legends, Overwatch, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm and Rocket League, and has expressed intent to expand the number of teams currently on their roster.
Unique to BSU is their tiered team system, in which they host more than one team per game so that multiple competitors may learn from each other and grow together. As a result, they account for multiple entries into events when permitted.
There you have it—nine spectacular universities for any enterprising young gamer to set his or her sights on. If you’d like to compete at the collegiate level in esports, you’re going to have to work on a reasonably impressive GPA in high school, as well as spend time honing your skills in your game of choice.
Though it’s a budding young field of athletics, esports and video game scholarships are sure to take a well-earned spot in the hierarchy of collegiate sports. Competitors who achieve success in college may find themselves drafted onto professional teams in the future. This is a huge opportunity for young people to make a name for themselves in a thriving industry.
If you’re serious about pursuing esports, any one of these nine universities can help you achieve your dreams—and there’s never going to be a better time to get in on the ground floor of something impressive. Put in the work, and you’ll be sure to go far.