Esports Scholarships Are Growing. Do They Leave Some Students Behind?

Voices | Game-Based Learning

Esports Scholarships Are Growing. Do They Leave Some Students Behind?

By J. Collins     Feb 27, 2019

Esports Scholarships Are Growing. Do They Leave Some Students Behind?

Maybe you’ve heard of esports? It’s a $900 million industry with nearly 400 million viewers worldwide that is growing by leaps and bounds every year. You may have seen the photos of stadiums packed to the gills with crazed fans or photos of young high school- and college-aged players hoisting sparkling trophies high into the air as they pull in million-dollar prize purses.

Although the term “esports” sounds new, the truth is that competitive video gaming has been growing for decades. These tournaments and leagues are the evolution of decades of player and fan culture. In the 1980s, competitions were just kids and adults trying to beat each others’ high scores at Donkey Kong Jr. in an old arcade. In the 1990s, they looked like LAN parties hosted in warehouses as players “fragged” each other across clunky Windows PCs. At the start of the 2000s, the whole industry was being turned on its head by games like StarCraft and Counter-Strike, which created a new form of online game competition culture.

The rapid increases in online viewership, money and attention from traditional sports media have caused video game competitions to move out of arcades, warehouses, and (sometimes) college dorms. The technology barriers to playing an esport are lower than ever and titles are increasingly available on laptops, tablets and even phones.

What does all this have to do with education? With the reduction of technology barriers, cultural barriers have become more apparent. These barriers are impacting schools—which are growing their own competitive esports programs—through a particularly important metric: access to college scholarships.

How Many Scholarships Are We Talking About?

While I was at the U.S. Department of Education, I co-wrote a blog post highlighting the rapid growth of esports at the collegiate level. Robert Morris University had been the first university to offer esports scholarships way back in 2014. By the time I sat down to write our post with my colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Newbury, it was 2017 and more than 35 colleges and universities were already offering this type of student incentive to players.

From one institution to 35-plus in three years is fairly rapid growth in the world of higher education. What has happened in the 18 months since I wrote that blog post? There are now over 115 colleges and universities offering scholarships. Several of these colleges actively market esports scholarship opportunities to high school students and recruit high skill, high school esports players directly from tournaments.

These scholarships range in value and type. Miami University in Ohio, which was the first Division I university to offer an esports scholarship, began by passing out $4,000 in scholarship funds to its 20 varsity team members. Robert Morris University offered a full 50 percent off tuition and room and board to players. Last year, New York University offered a full-tuition esports-related scholarship. All of these are awarded as merit scholarships, thereby skirting around federal Title IX gender protections and oversight for the student athletes involved. There is also little public information available on the financial details of university esports portfolios.

Even more astonishing is that the 115-plus number is misleadingly low in terms of esports money entering the academic system. Some universities participate in league-wide scholarship tournaments, like the Georgia Esports League, comprised of varsity college teams from around the state.

Several types of esports tournaments now offer scholarships as prize money as well. These scholarship funds are not sponsored by colleges or universities and are provided as general scholarship money that can be used at multiple different schools—even at universities that lack a varsity esports team. Of course, esports players can also earn money that is not earmarked for scholarships, including general tournament prizes, sponsorships, and streaming revenue. These types of funds are difficult to track and are even harder to analyze in terms of equity of access.

Who Are These Scholarships Supporting?

The majority of popular esports titles fall into a handful of video game genres: First-person shooters, MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas), racing, and sports. Unfortunately, these genres also happen to have the lowest percentage of female-identifying players.

How low? Only about 7 percent of first-person shooter players tend to identify as female according to one large study. For the other genres, women made up 10 percent of MOBA players, 6 percent for racing games, and a mere 2 percent for sports games.

There are other inclusivity concerns here as well. Students with home internet access, the latest game devices and ample amount of time for playing will be able to train longer and harder than students who experience technology or family challenges at home.

Schools are just as vulnerable to this access gap as well. Esports tournaments can be decided in fractions of seconds as one player shoots, jumps or races to their goal. Schools without adequate bandwidth, with slower computers and without access to premium esports titles (some of which may cost $60 per license) all find themselves at a disadvantage.

If esports is the new football, then internet bandwidth is the new football stadium. Without a big enough field, schools aren’t even able to play the game, let alone attract the right players, recruiters and donor funds.

The reality of the growing esports scholarship phenomenon is that universities and the gaming industry are inadvertently creating a college access gap (an “Esports Access Gap,” if you will) by using tournament and scholarship structures that primarily favor affluent young men from affluent schools.

What Can We Do?

Something else very important happened shortly after we published that blog post back in 2017: Missouri’s Stephen’s College became the first ever women’s college to host a varsity esports team. The sudden popularity of the game Overwatch allowed Stephen’s College to more deeply participate in the world of academic esports. Overwatch’s positive representations of women has allowed it to grow a stronger following among women and nonbinary students. This greater interest allowed the school to field a more competitive team than if it had focused on a title that exclusively catered to male audiences.

We have run into the same struggles as we have worked to start the first ever varsity esports program at the all-girls’ high school where I work, Hathaway Brown. How do you encourage young high school girls to participate in an activity that typically excludes them as an audience? One that will likely put them face-to-face with online harassment because of their gender?

We are attempting to solve this by focusing on supporting titles that are low cost or free to play, that already have more diverse audiences and — importantly — we have decided to focus on playing a collection of games as a triathlon instead of a single game during each esports tournament.

These methods need to continue to be tested, but we encourage others to consider the real and growing effects of the esports access gap on students of all backgrounds as well as opportunities to make the field of esports as inclusive as possible. Esports will continue to grow; let’s make sure that all of our students have the opportunity to play.

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