The Rise of Esports in Campus Rec | Athletic Business

The Rise of Esports in Campus Rec

Ahead of the upcoming Collegiate Esports Virtual Institute which is taking place July 14-15, the Association reached out to two NIRSA members who have been active in the evolution of their campus esports programs. Cybbi Barton, Program Manager – Club Sports & Esports at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor and Antonio Gonzalez, Assistant Director for Sports Programs and Outdoor Facilities at the University of South Florida, are both volunteers on NIRSA’s Esports Advisory Council and they recently shared their insights about the rise of esports in campus recreation.

A steady rise with a turbo boost

Robert Morris University in Illinois’ esports program is often credited as a pivotal moment in the history of esports on college campuses. In 2014, the university introduced a formal esports program that included varsity status and scholarships. That esports program paved the way for similar programs to emerge on campuses across the country.

“Esports, as a whole, has really started growing in the past five years,” explains Antonio. “However, a lot of the earliest adopters developed their esports programs as distinct departments or with heavy integration into academic programming—and most existed outside of campus recreation’s sphere of influence.” But, over the past two years—and probably in response to the pandemic—“a lot of campus recreation programs who had previously been unsure of how esports would fit into their department’s portfolio of offerings have been forced to evolve, adapt, and enter into this space,” says Antonio.

Cybbi’s insights echo Antonio’s. “Within the past two years, we have seen a dramatic spike in demand for gaming and esports opportunities,” she says. “This shift was evident before the pandemic hit campuses,” but, when programs shifted to online programming, “many campus recreation professionals saw an opportunity to implement their own esports and gaming programs.”

The why behind campus rec esports programs

“Plain and simple this work is at the core of what we do,” explains Antonio. Cybbi adds, “Campus rec departments are increasingly recognizing the value of investing in trends, and proactively responding to what students want from their experiences on campus.”

“Before the pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon to hear in campus rec circles that esports programs didn’t belong alongside traditional sports offerings,” says Antonio. “But, when intramural and club participants look back at the experiences facilitated by campus rec programs—from dodgeball to ping pong—their reported takeaways aren’t most valued because of contribution to their physical wellbeing; they are about the social connections and the built communities that that supported them through their collegiate careers.”

Antonio and Cybbi both see a transformation happening in the campus recreation profession right now. “We are seeing more and more recreational departments grow beyond a mantra of ‘physical wellbeing is our raison d’être,’ toward a mission of supporting the holistic wellbeing of students,” explains Antonio.

Expand your campus rec services to new populations

“If recreational professionals want to engage every student on their campus, we must be willing to expand beyond our traditional beliefs and try new approaches to engaging with those individuals who aren’t currently participating in our programs,” says Antonio.

“Students who play video games may have been told to ‘go outside and play,’ because ‘there isn’t any benefit to playing video games’ or they may have experienced hurtful stereotypes about being nerds,” says Cybbi. “Now, however, the game has changed and there are more career paths in the field of gaming beyond just competing.” Cybbi says that the University of Michigan has seen a 20% increase in the number of students who participate in its program over this past academic year and she credits that growth to the “education, support, and advocacy for these students, who haven’t had the high-level support before.”

The current crop of college students is much more fluid when it comes to interests, needs, and availabilities—fads in gaming tend to erupt and fizzle like supernovae, with many games enjoying “immense popularity and attention, before fading away with a whimper, almost overnight,” Antonio adds. But, “our students feel more valued and safe competing and playing within our community than they do playing with random people online,” shares Cybbi. “We’re not only providing opportunities for engagement, but also reinforcing our mission of having safe and inclusive programs.”

Engaging with your NIRSA peers will help you connect with new segments of your student body as well as keep your esports programs at the forefront of trends. Join esports leaders from across the association for two days of focused learning and networking around collegiate esports offerings—register today for the NIRSA Collegiate Esports Virtual Institute.

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