Dec 20 2019

Esports Programs Don’t Need to Break the Budget to Thrive

Colleges have plenty of flexibility to design programs that fit available resources.

One often-cited reason for colleges’ reluctance to launch esports programs, despite the potential benefits in retention, recruitment and academics, is concern about cost. The multimillion-dollar arenas being built by some institutions are exciting, and are no doubt good for the sport, but they may give the impression that an esports program isn’t possible without a very high level of investment.

Fortunately for aspiring teams, that isn’t the case. I’ve worked with colleges of all sizes seeking to develop programs of all stripes, and there isn’t one approach that works for everyone. The best way to design a program — and determine space and equipment needs — is to identify your primary goals and then to consider available resources to help you get there.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Here’s what happens behind the scenes at esports competitions.

College Esports Programs Can Fit Nearly Any Budget

Demonstrating my point that esports costs can vary widely, I typically give colleges a wide ballpark of potential startup costs for a basic program with a 10- to 15-player team: $8,000 to $50,000. If that seems improbably broad, that’s because there really can be significant variation, often determined by the space, equipment and infrastructure a college already has (or doesn’t have) in place.

In the next tier up, an esports program may be more focused on competition, emphasizing high-end gaming equipment. Or, it may have more of a campuswide focus, with a greater number of activities. Here, I typically ballpark a range of $50,000 to $300,000.

And, finally, there’s the larger-scale implementation, typically featuring a new arena or an existing space reimagined as a place that can accommodate players, spectators and streaming. These also range widely. I’ve seen cases where the primary investment required was infrastructure, at a cost of around $80,000, all the way up to the multimillion-dollar facility at Full Sail University.

One of the most high-profile esports programs, at Boise State University, expanded quickly with a new arena housed in the College of Innovation and Design’s Venture College. It boasts a professional-caliber broadcasting area; equipment for lighting, audio and graphics mixing; a stage; and a spectator area. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Esports coaches share lessons learned on the path to building a new program.

Consider Potential Future Expansions in Designing Today’s Space

As another example of the way esports programs may differ, consider varsity teams (defined by the National Association of Collegiate eSports as those with a full-time director or coach) versus nonvarsity teams. The former is actually in the minority. In one recent tournament, approximately 625 colleges participated, only about 125 of which fielded varsity teams.

A varsity distinction, by itself, doesn’t necessary speak to a program’s physical space or equipment. Some varsity teams practice in a spare room outfitted with a dozen computers; some club-level programs have a dedicated arena.

All of this goes to show that colleges have a wonderful amount of freedom and flexibility in developing a program that achieves their intended goals within the limits of available resources. One factor that will determine the nature of the space are the games in which players intend to compete, since each requires a specific number of players. Generally, esports spaces have 11, 13 or 15 machines (the odd number lets one machine handle streaming to Twitch or other platforms).

At $2,000 to $3,000 per station, including furniture, that’s the minimal setup required. Nice to have (but not mandatory) is an area where players can lounge and review plays together in a large-format display.

Another factor to consider in planning a space is the future outlook for the program. Quite often, a college tests the waters with a modest investment, and then is pleased to see that demand skyrockets, or there’s enough player talent to field multiple teams. Furniture and gaming equipment are easy enough to relocate, but transferring networking to a larger space is more complicated. If you think an expansion is a possibility, take that into account when planning for back-end infrastructure.

If you’re looking to start a program, I always recommend talking with others who have already gone down that road. While every program may be a bit unique, the esports community is full of people open and available to answering questions, sharing experiences and learning from each other.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.

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