2017 was a big year for collegiate eSports. The list of U.S. colleges offering varsity eSports programs grew to at least 56 institutions. Major universities like Georgia State University, the University of Utah, and the University of California-Irvine started offering scholarships to attract top players. And League of Legends developer Riot Games partnered with the Big Ten Network to produce a full season of collegiate games featuring schools in the Big Ten Conference, handing out at least $300,000 in scholarships. The eSports wave is sweeping through college athletics programs throughout the country.
A new study by Interpret sheds more light on collegiate eSports, showing its broad appeal among those who already watch eSports. The data indicate that over two-thirds of eSports viewers are interested in watching collegiate eSports. Additionally, 59% report that they would support their local collegiate eSports team in person. The number of viewers who have competed in collegiate eSports remains low (at 17%), but 60% of college-aged viewers are interested in competing. This is good news for schools looking to expand their athletics programs into the digital frontier.
Collegiate eSports still has some hurdles before it can rival NCAA football or basketball, however. When forced to choose between pro-level eSports and collegiate eSports, most viewers in the study agreed that resources should be focused on the pro-level scene. Collegiate eSports programs also rely on recruiting gamers with scholarships for approved eSports titles (League of Legends and Overwatch, in most cases), but only a small minority of high school-aged gamers currently play these titles (5% and 8%, respectively). On the other hand, a majority of eSports viewers agree that being an eSports athlete is a viable career. “The interest and support is clearly there for collegiate eSports, but the infrastructure still needs to be built out to create a clearer path from high school to college to pro-gaming,” notes Michael Cai, President of Interpret.