When physicist William Higinbotham created the first video game in 1958 as part of a scientific demonstration at Brookhaven National Laboratory, he probably didn’t consider its long-term entertainment or extracurricular value.

At the time, he designed it to demonstrate that scientific experiments could have real-life value to ordinary people, aiming to get more visitors to the laboratory.

But this is the world we live in now. Higinbotham, often considered the “grandfather of video games,” gave us a massively successful technology, which many students now use as a primary source of entertainment.

Today, the rise of professional gaming has driven some universities to welcome esports to campuses, with the goal of increasing enrollment and retention.

Why Esports Matter to Universities

Video games have often been called a distraction to students’ educations, so the decision to embrace them might seem surprising at a glance, as the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization continue to debate the seriousness and existence of video game addiction.

However, some argue that students will continue to game whether institutions embrace it or not, and Wired recently reported that around 51 percent of college students consider esports a viable career option.

Source: Interpret Survey of 895 Gamers

After Southeast Missouri State University invested $100,000 into an esports lab, complete with two computer banks and a big-screen TV for watching games, Bruce Skinner, Vice President for Student Life, suggested that moving gaming to campuses could get current students out of their dorm rooms, and motivate new students to enroll.

Reasons for this increased enrollment are numerous.

Variety reported last year that around 67 percent of Americans play video games on at least one device, with a large chunk of them on mobile. If campuses aim to relate more to students, embracing new technologies in unique ways could draw more students to universities, especially if those students already play esports seriously.

This is especially true now, as smaller and private academic institutions struggle with enrollment. Ashland University’s decision to adopt esports and even offer scholarships to professional players landed them a segment on Good Morning America, after which the university saw 500 new applications.

Other small universities, like SUNY Canton, have done similarly, offering esports programs in hopes of being pioneers and differentiating themselves from their larger, more prestigious rivals. Given that some statistics also show higher graduation rates for athletes, as opposed to non-athletes, they also hope that esports might translate to higher student success.

How Universities Are Engaging Esports

More esports scholarships are available every year, as more schools establish esports programs. From this to last school year, the total esports scholarships among all higher education institutions skyrocketed, from around $9 million to $15 million.

Types of scholarships range from flat to room and board or tuition scholarships, with Robert Morris University offering as much as 50 percent off room and board and tuition, and New York University eliminating a student’s tuition entirely.

But scholarships are, in a sense, like promises. Promises might convince students to enroll, but what really keeps them engaged are meaningful experiences.

For esports to truly flourish, esports programs need to coordinate.

Varsity-level esports, operated officially by universities, are currently organized under the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE).

While non-varsity leagues like TESPA, a collegiate esports organization operated by Blizzard, have worked with ESPN and other brands to create large-scale championship events, varsity esports are still finding their footing. Compared to NACE, TESPA is a giant, with as many as 850 schools, or 20,000 players, affiliated.

The future is fairly bright, however. Recently, Full Sail University opened its own esports arena. A $6 million investment, he arena seats 500, and at 11,200-square-feet, it’s the largest esports arena on any U.S. campus.

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What’s more, Full Sail is partnering with esports teams, like Magic 2K, to promote their university, the work of their students, and the new arena. The two will join forces to bring esports events to the Orlando area.

The Future of Varsity Esports

While varsity esports have shown tremendous growth, their fate on campuses is ultimately up to how readily universities adopt them.

NACE and Tespa aspire to see esports become legitimate sports, rivaling the reputations of basketball or football. For that to happen, esports need to shift from a way for universities to stand out to an expected offering. If current trends continue, this could happen very quickly.

For universities considering esports programs, there are many ways to start programs. Establishing a successful esports program can require offering scholarships, building quality facilities, and becoming NACE-affiliated.

The best approach is to start small, and get in touch with your students and community. For first steps, even a little can go a long way.

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