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

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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.

See the rest of this commentary at Ed Surge.

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