Esports and their emerging collegiate potential
Updated: Apr 25
By Aidan Sweeney
The 2022 League of Legends World Championship was one of the most viewed esports events of all time. Over 5.1 million viewers tuned in from across the world on Twitch, Afreeca TV, Trovo, YouTube, and Facebook.
“League of Legends specifically definitely benefits from, you know, being that first on the market, the first in North America to do esports,” explained Josh Sides, director of esports at Winthrop University, noting how before League of Legends most esports held tournaments in South Korea and Europe.
“We started having teams where we could week in week out, follow, you know, there was a league now," Sides said. "They play on Saturday, at this time, at this place, you can watch them here, you can come watch them in person, you know, let's build up the personalities, let's build up the superstars.”
League of Legends esports - and esports in general - are only continuing to grow in popularity. Today more people are aware of esports than ever before and the interest is still gaining.
Esports have been consistently gaining new fans year by year. In 2022 there was a 8.7% increase in occasional viewers and esports enthusiasts, according to Newzoo, a gaming analytics firm. And in 2021 there was a 12.4% increase.
Esports, which have become an intrinsic part of online competitive gaming, exist for many different games, giving all kinds of players the opportunity to compete.
Development of competitive esports
The first example of esports can be traced back to 1972 at Stanford University with the “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics.” This tournament consisted of five players who competed to earn the high score and a year’s subscription for Rolling Stone. Since then esports has slowly developed into a global phenomenon.
League of Legends saw its first professional tournament in 2011 with the first world championship. This tournament featured seven teams from across the world and a prize pool of nearly $100,000. In 2022 the prize for the world championship was $2.23 million.
The League of Legends world championship is one of the most high profile professional competitions in gaming, run by the game’s developers, Riot Games.
Along with League, Riot also hosts esports tournaments for its other IPs. Valorant, Team Fight Tactics, and Wild Rift all have their own esports organizations within the company.
Riot has been one of the most successful developers in the esports scene with League of Legends being its most prolific and lucrative IP, in part due to League of Legends’ consistent updates and major success outside of the game.
K/DA is a virtual K-pop group consisting of four characters from the game. K/DA released a five-track album, “All Out,” in 2018, along with one single, “Pop/Stars.” The group made its debut live performance using holographic and AR technology at the opening ceremony for the 2018 League of Legends world championship.
Riot, working with Netflix, has released “Arcane,” a Netflix original animated series set in the world of League of Legends. “Arcane” was released in late 2021, and at the time of its release was one of the most popular shows on the platform, and currently holds a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
It is safe to say that League of Legends viewership and popularity have also been on an upward trend recently.
But what actually is League of Legends and how is it played? Riot describes League of Legends on its website as “a team-based strategy game where two teams of five powerful champions face off to destroy the other’s base. Choose from over 140 champions to make epic plays, secure kills, and take down towers as you battle your way to victory.”
Games are played with two teams of five players, whose goal is to defend their bases or “nexus.” Whichever team destroys the enemy team's nexus first, wins the game. This simple format becomes more complex, however, with the 140 options each player has at the beginning of the game.
League of Legends has fostered communities worldwide, both casual and competitive, with different esports organizations operating around the globe. And today Riot hosts multiple different tournaments on all levels of competitive play - from a global world championship to varsity high school competitions.
One of the fastest growing sectors in esports is amongst college campuses, where playing League of Legends at the highest level can earn you a scholarship.
At Harrisburg University in Pennsylvania, the school has a $2.5 million facility for its esports program, says Tanner Deegan, head coach of its League of Legends team, HU Storm.
“Like 25-30 PCs, we have an entire wall of monitors so that we can relay things on the wall,” explained Deegan. "You know, we've got coaches, we've got a coach's room for game film - the whole nine yards.”
The Riot Scholastic Association of America is in charge of developing and managing varsity competitions for high school and college teams like the Storm.
This year North American students from across the country will be competing in the 2023 College League of Legends Season with hundreds of teams participating across four regions and two divisions.
Some colleges have taken a serious interest in this and esports in general, with some even offering scholarships to talented young players.
The first college to offer a scholarship was Robert Morris University in 2014, for none other than League of Legends. Since then esports have gained a lot of attention from colleges wanting to start programs.
Between 2018 and 2019, over 200 colleges in the United States spent around $16 million in esports scholarships, according to the National Association of College Esports.
And colleges are not only investing in scholarships but also full blown esports programs, just like their traditional varsity sports programs.
Some have even devoted practice facilities, hired their own coaches, and even added personal trainers and nutritionists in some cases. West Virginia University even offers a 15-hour minor students can take in esports.
Harrisburg’s esports program is competing among the best in the nation for League of Legends. And with recent formatting changes from the RSAA, the competition is as fierce as ever for the top level of collegiate League of Legends.
This year in 2023 the RSAA has split collegiate League of Legends into two divisions, the Championship Division and the Open Division. This split has separated the top 32 schools from each regional division totaling 128 schools. Each division has its own separate finals at the end of the season where the top teams of each skill level compete nationally.
This has resulted in a more competitive season for top teams like Harrisburg.
“Now instead of us playing everyone in the Eastern Conference, we only play the top 32 teams. So, you know, we find ourselves in like week two. We're playing Western and Western is like a top 10 team in the country,” Deegan explained.
With this high level of competition also comes a high level of practice, which is something both players and coaches take seriously.
“When we get into scrims (practice), I treat them very, very, very seriously," Deegan said. “You know, I essentially put more pressure on them in scrims than I would imagine."
Esports competitors have to balance school work with practice time just like other student athletes.
"And then the cost for that is that I, you know, I'm kind of a dick sometimes in practice where you have to be," Deegan said.
While degree of practice varies per university, many top colleges expect a lot from their varsity players, and practice can be intense.
Sides, esports director at Winthrop, says they'll have four to five matches a week sometimes during the spring semester, plus two days of scrims.
"You know, five days of matches a week, and two days of scrims a week… some weeks, they're putting in seven days a week," he said. "So, it's definitely a grind.”
At Winthrop their esports program currently supports several varsity teams over a few different games, including Super Smash Bros, Valorant and League of Legends. Sides says they are considering adding teams in Rocket League and Overwatch - games the school has had a history of supporting successful teams in the past.
“Specifically games that we have a pretty good competitive history in, and I think that we might be able to kind of reenter and be able to compete at the highest level in those,” he said.
Coaches look for players who can keep up with these intensive schedules, and place value on players who have the drive to win.
“I think a lot of that comes from these guys wanting, by the end of the semester, to be the team that's lifting the trophy,” Sides said. “And they understand the work that has to go into getting there. You know, it's a situation where those are kind of the individuals that we look for when we're recruiting people who, you know, have a high work ethic and are self motivated.”
But in-game practice is not all that goes into coaching college students.
Deegan and the Harrisburg team also emphasize developing students outside of the game.
“We try to set personal goals for students to help them develop not just individually like in the game, but also individually outside the game, too,” Deegan said.
While Deegan is not a certified teacher he, and the Harrisburg team, still try to help players develop personally through team activities, personal training, and time management.
“It's not me teaching them a bunch of stuff,” he explained. “It's more so me facilitating their academic development.”
Varsity players put a lot into the game, and in return, the colleges with larger esports programs often provide scholarship opportunities for their players.
“That's kind of what it's all about, is, you know, providing opportunities for people to get their education and compete at the highest level,” Sides said. “These guys, the amount that they work, you know, the work that they put in, representing the University. I mean, they've more than earned it.”
Esports, being a relatively new form of competition, is still experiencing a lot of fluctuation in opportunities for both players and staff. Because of this, collegiate has become a place of stability for many professionals in the industry, especially in recent years as collegiate esports have gained more notoriety.
Much of this comes through university funding, which has helped colleges in recruiting both player talent and staff from a wide pool of selections.
“I wanted to stay in collegiate because collegiate is a lot more stable as a business than the pros, especially on the staff side,” Deegan said, noting the opportunities for faculty as well. “Basically, every nine to 18 months you have to find a new job. And you know, collegiate is a place where you can get a decent salary, get benefits, you know, you have an opportunity to go to school if you'd like, there's just tons of upside.”
As universities continue to invest more resources into their varsity esports programs, the level of play has also been rising.
“Keeping an eye on the growth of collegiate and how competitive collegiate rosters look today than when I started in 2018, for example, it's night and day. The best tier two roster from 2018, wouldn't hold a candle against the top collegiate rosters today,” Sides said.
As collegiate has grown more competitive it has become a more attractive option and drawn in talent from even the professional level, as many pros are weighing the benefits of a varsity athletic scholarship and education over working for a professional team.
As sides explained, in recent years professional players have turned to collegiate esports as an opportunity to find more stability in their lives.
“There's a lot of stability there if you're one of those people that go into one of the top five or so schools out there – you're gonna have your school paid for, you're not gonna have to worry about housing costs for the most part, or food or whatever,” he explained. “And all that just from playing the game that you're good at, you know? It's gonna be mutually beneficial, that stuff, because those guys are going to be able to get that stability, get their degree, and have some kind of life after esports.”
Along with this, adding former pros to a collegiate roster can add a level of experience and maturity to the team.
“The ex-pro will obviously come in with experience, and you try to transition them more into leadership figures,” Deegan said .
With this increase in talent coming into the collegiate scene it is beginning to rival many tier two competitive teams, and is even starting to rival professional teams in some cases.
Deegan explained that the resources and opportunities provided to college teams compare to those of a professional team, while even the top level tier two teams struggle to match up.
“The ability of five players and a coach to come in and be in the same room, prepare together, play together, hang out together, after, you know, build those bonds,” he explained. “That exists at the pro level, but that also exists at the collegiate level.”
Deegan believes that as more top talent moves into collegiate, this comparison will be even more apt.
“I think you're gonna see more and more, those top collegiate programs be able to challenge the top of the tier two scene and even, you know, getting those comparisons to tier one teams.”
This ability for collegiate to rival tier one and two is already being seen. In Overwatch, another competitive game, The Illinois State Redbird have won Contenders America, which is the tier two tournament for Overwatch, twice in a row. The Redbirds also recently competed in the 2023 Overwatch League Pro-Am tournament where they were given the opportunity to compete against professional level players.
But not every collegiate team can compete with the pros, and there are over 240 colleges that are a part of The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) which accounts for 94% of varsity esports programs in the U.S.
This recent influx of pro players and the rising skill of the top level of collegiate has created a wide skill disparity between the top and bottom of collegiate.
“I generally think that a decent amount of programs want to be competitive at a high level, but I don't think they necessarily have either the resources or the experience, or the know it all to be able to get there,” Deegan explained. “There is a huge drop off between like the top 16 and kind of at the top, I would say like top 20, maybe Top 20 Top 25 and the rest.”
This has caused many collegiate esports tournaments to split collegiate into their own separate divisions system like League of Legends new Champions and Open divisions that separate the top 32 teams in each region from the rest of the schools.
How esports compare to traditional sports
Although esports and traditional college sports programs differ in the contents of their actual activity, popularity, traditions, and practices many similarities can still be seen through conventions of competition. Similarities like the competitive nature of the matches, the strategy involved and the skill development needed to compete are all relevant to both esports and traditional sports.
“It's definitely not a one to one comparison. But at the same time the similarities that exist are, you know, it's competitive, you know, basketball is a competitive five vs. five game and so is League of Legends right?” Sides said. “There's strategic elements to the games, there's practice, training, player improvement - stuff like that. Coaching you know, there's team dynamics that exist in creating a good team culture and things like that, it's very similar to building a really good sports team.”
Many esports organizations have tried to capture the magic of traditional sports through emphasizing their similarities as a strategy to draw in new viewers. This has come with varying success as fans debate whether esports should be similar to traditional sports or not.
Two of the largest examples come from Blizzard Entertainment's Overwatch League (OWL) and Call of Duty League (CDL). Both of these tournaments feature a set group of franchised teams based mostly out of cities worldwide, intentionally recreating traditional city-based sports leagues. With Toronto Ultra winning the CDL season and Dallas Fuel winning the OWL season in 2022.
The Overwatch League even caught the ire of the MLB in the past for using a reminiscent design for the league’s logo, which resulted in a brief trademark dispute.
Although the nature of esports and traditional sports competitions differs, a lot of the coaching practices and strategies are similar.
“Honestly a lot of the success that I had, especially initially, was from having studied how traditional sports coaches kind of handle building teams and handle going about their processes and stuff like that,” Sides said.
Perhaps the biggest differences are in the culture around gaming and how it compares to the culture and traditions of traditional sports.
“I think esports and traditional sports can be one-to-one compared in terms of creating value,” Deegan said. “I do think there's a lot of similarities in structure. But there's a huge difference in work output and also culture in general.”
Deegan believes that the primary difference comes through how players are developed from a young age to understand not only a game but also team culture and coaching.
“There is a fundamental development pipeline that exists from an early age and progresses you,” he said, recalling his days playing Pop Warner football as a young kid.
“You learn your three point stance, you learn your form tackles, you learn all that stuff, you learn formations and stuff. Then you play middle school football, from middle school you develop, then you play high school football, then from high school, you go to college, so by the time you get to college, you have a lot of the fundamentals that you already should know,” he explained.
And once a player reaches varsity level, Deegan notes, most of the fundamental training is over.
“Then for esports, none of that exists,” he said.
An interesting dichotomy exists for esports though. Even without the pipeline and developmental training from a young age, esports is more accessible to both players and viewers.
“It’s very on demand,” Sides explained. “You can get on Twitch at any time, and see somebody playing the game that you're interested in at the highest level at any given time,” he said. “You can hop on a game at two in the morning and play.”
Sides believes esports caters to our on-demand society, and that this can be credited for its growing popularity. And as younger generations continue to take over the mainstream market of consumers, esports will continue to grow as a competitive event.
“I think you're gonna see a lot of metrics showing that esports is rivaling from a viewership perspective, from a, you know, fandom perspective, those traditional sports,” he said. “And a lot of it has to do with how accessible it is.”
Future of esports
Esports still have a lot of room to grow as it is still a relatively new form of competition that has seen immense growth since its inception.
But growth always brings some complications, and the sustainability of big budget professional esports has come into question amid mass layoffs from esports organizations like The Guard, eUnited, and 100 Thieves.
“I think basically what happened with esports is we got too excited too quickly,” Deegan said, while comparing esports to a teenager getting their first paycheck.
“It's like, oh my god, I have $400! And I get 400 more dollars two weeks from now. This is insane,” he said. “But then in the first three days of that 14 days, you spent $350 of your $400."
“And then all of a sudden, you're just like, shit, now I'm low on money for the next 11 days, and I have to like really budget and cut things back,” Deegan said, commenting on the overspending in the industry.
“There's no reason to have to pay players $1 million a year. There's no reason to not be putting all these dollars into different ventures.”
But while professional esports is facing these troubles, the collegiate level seems to have remained stable and is still showing signs of projected growth.
“I think that you'll see a lot of growing pains over the next year or so, but I think, you know, there are orgs out there that get it, those ones will keep kicking in and other orgs will move up to, to kind of take their place that kind of get, you know, kind of how it should be,” Sides said, adding that currently at least collegiate esports competition is stable and can provide professional and new players looking to move into the scene opportunities. “So, I think you'll see a lot of growth in collegiate especially over the next year or two.”
Even with this uncertainty, many fans and professionals alike remain hopeful for the future of esports, noting that esports organizations will need to be more responsible with their management of resources.
Like many young players, this young form of competition still has a lot of room to grow and learn.
“I don't think people are like, very good at just kind of riding the wave, you know?” Deegan said. “Like, I think esports folks, instead of like surfing the wave and riding the ups and downs of like, the natural ups and downs and the natural progression, I feel like they kind of just try to run through the fucking wave. Just, run through and just force and it's like, I am right, I'm right. I'm right.”
Ultimately Deegan sees the esports business being able to compete with traditional sports.
“And so, this business, I believe, will be incredible. You know, it already is incredible. I mean, for goodness sakes, like, I have an entire career based on video games. Like that is incredible,” he said. “It's just, I think it's just going to be a slow process. But I definitely think that we can get to where traditional sports are, for sure. And I think collegiate esports will be huge in 10 years.”