Esports and Independent Colleges: Ready Player 509 (and Counting)

Esports and Independent Colleges report cover

​The existence of esports is rising dramatically across the membership of the Council of Independent Colleges. The culture of esports is likely to continue to evolve, but whether the chaos around governance and eligibility will be resolved is anyone’s guess.

Esports proponents, such as Brooks of NACE, point to the pervasive popularity of gaming among young people. “This is where the audience has moved to,” he says. “That’s not to say people are not playing sports, but gaming is a common denominator across the next generation of prospective students. If you don’t have a program in place to capture those students, the question becomes how well have you situated your institution to be successful in [the] near future.”

Esports may continue to expand at the meteoric rates observed here, or they may stabilize among the population Brooks is describing. In either case, many questions remain to be answered. Among them: Will colleges gravitate to NACE as an analogue to national sports organizations such as the NCAA and NAIA, or will they splinter into a multitude of developer-owned organizations? At the NCAA Division I level, colleges are facing similar questions: The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics recently announced it would examine “new models to restructure college sports,” potentially setting up a move to sport-by-sport governance.

Another question regards the commercial future of esports: Will colleges and associations coalesce around a model for directly compensating athletes, indirectly sponsoring them through scholarships? Or will they move to a format where colleges choose to compete within different models of financial aid, like the NCAA? This issue also raises similar questions in traditional sports: The commercial essence of esports, allowing gamers to build their brands using streams, sponsors, and tournament victories, seems analogous to the debate over athletes being able to capitalize on their names, images, and likenesses. That debate is taking place in state legislatures across the country.

As such, the overarching question seems to be whether esports will reshape traditional college sports, or whether traditional college sports will absorb esports. The outcomes will be significant for CIC members and institutions of all shapes, sizes, and missions.

​Council of Independent Colleges
David Welch Suggs, Jr., Jennifer May-Trifiletti, James C. Hearn, and
Julianne O’Connell
June 2020