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The Rise of Varsity Esports

Complete with coaches, full-ride scholarships, and a league founded in 2016, the establishment of Varsity Esports is applying the same principles to college-level gaming competitors seen previously only in Varsity Athletics. In doing so, colleges and universities are opening up a whole new field of opportunities while simultaneously helping to further bring esports into the mainstream. 

The Rise of Varsity Esports
Courtesy of ESPN

While the National Collegiate Athletic Association(NCAA) was founded by Theodore Roosevelt back in 1906 to oversee competitive athletics in higher education, until recently, there had been no such governing organization for esports. However, In 2016, the National Association of Collegiate Esports(NACE) was founded to act as a similar structural association focused on the rapidly developing arena of competitive gaming. 

As with any new endeavor, the growth and establishment of NACE hasn’t been instantaneous. Although the majority of colleges and universities are involved in one of the NCAA’s three divisions, involvement in the NACE is not quite as widespread. A number of colleges that do have competitive gaming programs are functioning outside of the jurisdiction of the association.  However, as of 2019, 94% of all varsity esports programs in the U.S. are members of NACE. As such, more and more schools are offering scholarships for students involved in varsity esports, something that hadn’t been the case until relatively recently. 

Tyler Blint-Welsh for The Washington Post via Getty Images

However, there are still opportunities for aspiring pro gamers to win scholarships as they pursue higher education. Beyond the NACE, there is also Tespa, a network that organizes students, competitors, and club leaders so as to continue to develop collegiate esports. Considering the majority of collegiate tournaments are sponsored and organized either by video game companies directly or third-party gaming leagues, Tespa serves as an important intermediary, allowing students to access such opportunities. 

These opportunities are quite lucrative and will only continue to grow. Overwatch recently had a collegiate series that offered up to $40,000 in scholarship funds. As such, the NCAA itself as well as ESPN are paying attention. ESPN has even begun to broadcast the competitions. 

In 2019, ESPN held their very first Collegiate Esports Championship(CEC). Based off qualifiers hosted by Tespa and Collegiate StarLeague(CSL), the schools set to participate in semi-finals and championships were determined, including institutions such as the University of Chicago, Rutgers University, Maryville University, and many more. Competing in categories such as Overwatch, Streetfighter V: Arcade Edition, StarCraft II, and others, student competitors experienced a taste of what collegiate athletes have been experiencing for decades. 

Just like with traditional varsity athletics, the 2019 CEC did illustrate the similar advantage that a school’s investment in their program has. For example, Maryville University’s team, The Storm, came out on top in the Overwatch competition, largely because the school has one of the best collegiate esports programs in the United States, offering full-ride scholarships to players on their team. 

Interestingly though, while playing in traditional varsity athletics is one of the most direct ways for athletes to go pro, as of yet, participation in collegiate varsity esports is not necessarily required to make the leap to pro gamer, though it is an option for many. As such, not all varsity esports players are even interested in going pro, choosing instead to focus on financing their education and pursuing their varied career goals. 

Overall, as with all different facets of the ever-developing esports industry, we’re living in exciting times. It will be interesting to see how varsity esports continue to develop alongside  more traditional collegiate athletics, just as pro gaming and pro sports continue to change and develop in parallel with one another, especially given the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

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