Columbia is attracting attention for its innovation in collegiate esports. From having the first varsity collegiate all-female esports team to hosting the first Midwest esports tournament, the city’s institutions of higher education offer a growing number of opportunities for student gamers.
Esports refers to multiplayer video game competitions organized into leagues and tournaments. In Columbia, both Stephens College and Columbia College sponsor varsity esports teams and provide partial scholarships to the players. The University of Missouri has an esports program, but at MU, like many universities, it’s offered as a club sport, rather than as a varsity sport.
College students make up the largest group of esports enthusiasts, with 11 percent of U.S. students watching esports content at least once per month, according to esports research firm Newzoo.
The esports industry is on a fast growth track. It’s expected to grow to $696 million by the end of 2017 and $1.5 billion by 2020, according to Newzoo. That figure includes brand investments, advertisements, ticket sales and sponsorships.
‘A different group of students’
In 2015, Columbia College announced the formation of a 12-player League of Legends program, making it the fifth college to establish a varsity esports program. The school’s assistant athletic director, Bryan Curtis, said Columbia College decided on League of Legends, a multiplayer battle game with more than 100 million active monthly users, due to its popularity among collegiate leagues.
“Riot has put a lot of money and resources into collegiate leagues,” Curtis said of Riot Games, the developer and publisher of League of Legends.
The current school year marks the second year of competition for the esports program at Columbia College. The program has two teams, consisting of five players and one substitute. Both teams play League of Legends.
Esports does not generate revenue for Columbia College, but Curtis said it helps the school reach the next generation of students.
“I think this was an extremely creative way to reach out to a different group of students that we typically wouldn’t have attracted to our campus,” he said. “For us to be able to offer a scholarship like this to students interested in gaming, those students can come to our campus and get a great education and add to what is already a diverse campus.”
The 12 students hail from all over, including California, Minnesota and Texas. The majority study computer science, according to Curtis.
Coastal cities have traditionally been more popular destinations for big gaming conventions, but in April Columbia College hosted its first gaming expo, the Midwest Campus Clash.
“We were trying to create something that we’ve seen on the East and West Coast and bring it to the Midwest because we’ve seen a lot of popularity in esports in the Midwest, specifically collegiate esports, over the past few years,” Curtis said. “We were looking for a way to bring a lively event to the Midwest, and I think we did that with the Midwest Campus Clash.”
Around 1,500 people attend the one-day event in April. Curtis said he hopes attendance doubles for the second event in 2018.
A first for Stephens
Just a few blocks away from Columbia College sits Stephens College, home of the first all-female collegiate varsity esports team. The college has a pair of six-player teams, a junior varsity and varsity, that play Overwatch, a multiplayer combat game. Stephens esports coach Nick Salamone said Overwatch is the game of choice due to its strong female characters.
The teams were established earlier this year kicked off their season this month. They will compete in their fourth match on Monday against Kansas Wesleyan University.
Stephens College is a part of the National Association of Collegiate Esports, or NACE, which formed in Kansas City in July 2016. Forty-eight institutions currently make up NACE, which accounts for 94 percent of all varsity esports programs in North America, according to Michael Brooks, NACE’s executive director.
While students can win scholarship money in collegiate tournaments, the stakes get higher at the professional level. In August, The International 2017, a tournament for the game Dota 2, featured a prize pool of $20.8 million, Fortune reports.
Connor Hall, a St. Louis native and 2016 graduate of MU, manages Team Allegiance, a professional esports team that has won more than $600,000 in tournaments alone. Other revenue streams for the team include apparel sales, through which Hall has brought in more than $75,000.
In August, Hall retired Team Allegiance because he didn’t have the funds to continue running a team, which can cost millions of dollars. That retirement didn’t last long; Team Allegiance was back up and running in less than a month.
“We were fortunate enough to find a group that wanted to back Allegiance and let us continue our esports journey,” Hall said, “and that all happened within a month’s time.”
Team Allegiance will soon be based out of the Dallas metro area, where Hall is moving in early November.
“We want to bring all our players together with our staff … to centralize our operations in a single location,” Hall said.
Esports teams are garnering the attention of prominent figures from other professional sports. In July, New England Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft and New York Mets COO Jeff Wilpon were announced as owners in a new Overwatch League. Kraft and Wilpon will have franchise rights over the Boston and New York markets, respectively, with the league expected to launch at the end of the year. The league will feature teams from Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Miami-Orlando, San Francisco, Shanghai and Seoul, South Korea.
Hall said that bigger brands joining the industry is a good sign for esports.
“It shows there is money involved and people who have a lot of money and success in the business world are seeing this opportunity,” he said.