According to a recent Morning Consult poll, Generation Z is less interested in sports than the general public — with one notable exception: esports. The poll found that among Gen Zers who identified as sports fans, 35 percent of them said they were esports fans, a mark among the cohort that outpaced such traditional sports offerings as college basketball (33 percent), Major League Baseball (32 percent), NASCAR (26 percent) and the National Hockey League (25 percent).
Esports' burgeoning popularity among Gen Z — a group which includes individuals born from 1997 on, according to Pew Research — is just one reason that athletics and recreation professionals are beginning to, at long last, take esports seriously.
"I live here in Kansas City, and our local Rocket League team is outpacing two of the three professional sports teams here in terms of viewership," says Jake Zinn, vice president of business development with Esport Supply. "So, I think that's here to stay, and I think it's only going to get bigger."
"We are creating an environment that is perfect for digital natives," says Rob Bailey, the director of IT for the division of student affairs at Illinois State University. "As you see the growth of esports in the high school space, that expectation is there in the collegiate space. Students are going to expect to have these programs available to them as they move into the collegiate space, and it's becoming much more mainstream."
Jack Blahnik, a graduate assistant with Illinois State's Redbird Esports program, puts it another way. "Gaming, while traditionally not thought of as a standard medium to engage, is becoming more streamlined and accepted, and that stigma of gaming is starting to slowly fade away."
Gaming is nothing new on college campuses, but the latest trend is professionals seeking to harness the enthusiasm for the hobby and channel it into new programs. "A 2019 study showed that about 85 percent of students play some type of video game on a semiregular basis," says Chris Allison, founder of the Geex esports platform. "It's one of the largest affinity groups on any college campus. But the challenge has always been how to aggregate those communities, and how to create a cohesive program for both the competitive players and the casual, recreational base."
Illinois State's Redbird Esports program seeks to address both casual and competitive constituencies, according to program director David Kirk, who describes the structure of his program in tiers. The highest level is represented by scholarship esports athletes, the middle tier by competitive club teams, and the lowest tier by casual gamers. "It's really modeled after just a standard drop-in recreational model," says Kirk of the latter tier, "just like you would drop in at a sport court to play basketball on a certain night."
"What we're seeing with our students is now they're finding their community, and they're starting to make those connections so that hopefully when we come back to where we can really be in person, our students can go to a football game together," Kirk says. "When you get involved on campus, there's a strong likelihood that you're going to continue to stay involved and you're going to get more involved."
Dawn Pote, ISU's executive director of campus recreation, agrees, adding, "We were really intentional about not building a program that was focused only on successful varsity teams or successful competitive teams, but in building community."
Esports programming can engage constituencies that are not otherwise reached by traditional recreation programs, drawing them deeper into the broader campus community.
"About 40 percent of our users have not taken part in any recreational programming at that community before — if it was a college/university or a rec center, whatever it might be," says Daniel Herz, chief revenue officer with esports management platform provider Mission Control. "It's creating engagement for students or individuals who might not have had it, or not had interest in other activities that had been offered."
"It's a space for people to come together with different backgrounds that just have this common thread of gaming, and not even one particular game. I might like Overwatch, you might like League of Legends, we end up in the same space, we become friends," says Steve Kramarck, associate director of university student affairs and esports program director at the University of Delaware, where a dedicated esports facility opened on campus in February, just weeks before the pandemic forced shutdowns.
"It is not just hardcore gamers in there," he adds, "If you have this image of a stereotypical gamer in your head, that is not what's in there. It's a lot more spread out. Different majors, different races, different genders, different ages — it's all over the place, which is what we want."
While rec programs of all sorts can provide myriad benefits to participants, esports provides a particular opportunity for academic engagement, something that the Redbird Esports and Delaware Esports programs seek to highlight.
University of Delaware director of university student centers Tony Doody brought in academic stakeholders from across the school — including representatives of the business, arts and sciences, and engineering and computer science departments — to help the esports program get off the ground.
"We put them all in a room, and they said, 'Hey, we actually could have something really special here,' " Doody says. "So they've come together, and they are actually presenting to our faculty senate for approval an esports major that will be cross-discipline, which I think is really unique."
"It blows people away when they look at the ecosystem of what kind of jobs are out there that are directly under esports, or directly esports adjacent, so for people who come through this major or are involved with the program, there are a lot of places they can jump to from here. It's not just going to play a game," says Kramarck, who points out that the Delaware Esports program requires a higher GPA threshold for participants at the varsity level than the school's traditional sports programs.
"People are looking for a way to not only connect with each other, but connect their learning to how they're going to be successful in the future," adds ISU's Pote. "Transferable skills — some of the leadership development that comes from communicating and being effective in esports transfers right over."
"There's just so many pieces that intersect with this," Doody says. "People often poo-poo and say, 'They're just playing games.' But we look at it from a developmental side. It's critical, creative thinking; it's teamwork and problem-solving; it's strategic planning; it's communication; it's analytical processing; its resiliency; it's leadership — it's all things you would get if you were doing a traditional sport, plus even more in my opinion."
Flexibility during the pandemic
When the pandemic hit and recreational facilities around the country were forced to shut down, people were forced to get creative. Esports allow the ability to gather and compete online, an aspect of community maintenance that traditional rec programs lack.
"If the pandemic has done anything for esports, it's shown the resilience of it, and the ability to continue to engage students in a way that's meaningful when we can't engage them in that physical environment," says ISU's Kirk.
The Delaware Esports program has even gone so far as to shift its homecoming competition to the digital realm. "We had a homecoming football game against William & Mary, our homecoming foe [moved to the spring]," Doody says, "so Steve has reached out and we will have, broadcast by the Electronic Gaming Federation, homecoming with full-on color commentary against William & Mary's teams for our homecoming week."
It's indicative of the way esports is being celebrated nationwide.
Says Esport Supply's Zinn, "The demand for esports in general — competitive gaming and tournaments and activations and culture and places to physically do this and places to virtually meet — has never been higher."
Not just for college kids
It's not just collegiate environments wading into the realm of esports. "Our esports program was born out of the pandemic," says C.J. Keester, recreation manager with the Port St. Lucie, Fla., parks and recreation department. "We were looking to provide any type of programming to engage with our community."
The city's esports program was originally going to only include game titles related to sports, such as Madden, FIFA and NBA2K, according to Keester. However, the department received immediate feedback to include additional game titles, and now offers leagues in MLB the Show 20, Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. and Rocket League, as well.
"We were excited to launch our first season of leagues with over 100 participants," Keester says. "We are now wrapping up our second season of leagues and our organization now has more than 170 members."
This article originally appeared in the November|December 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "More than a game Esports programs power up campus and community rec." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.