At the University of North Carolina Greensboro’s new esports arena, students gain hands-on experience and in-demand skills for a career in the industry.

Aug 26 2022

Collegiate Esports Programs Provide Academic Pathways

Colleges and universities present esports as a route to viable career opportunities.

The course titles speak for themselves: Introduction to Esports Management. Esports, Meeting and Event Tourism. Tournaments: Design to Execution. Hype, Engagement and Sponsorship.

Competitive gaming has earned a spot in the curriculum at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

Last spring, UNCG officials celebrated the opening of a campus esports arena by gathering at the facility and inspecting the new state-of-the-art equipment. Joined by members of the university’s student gaming and esports club, they took in the venue’s 3,300 square feet of space and watched as players battled opponents in games like League of Legends and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

By and large, recalls Todd Sutton, UNCG associate vice chancellor for learning technology and customer success, those in attendance focused on the action: the lights and the buzz and the clicking of keyboards on long tables lined with PCs. But there was also plenty of talk about the future, he says, and especially the esports courses the university planned to offer in fall 2022.

“This arena was designed to be a great place for students to game and blow off steam,” Sutton says. “But more than that, it’s part of our larger vision for esports programming on the academic side of things.”

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That vision, he explains, includes two initiatives in particular: a noncredit six-course digital certificate program and an esports management concentration.

The certificate program was launched in late 2021, while the arena was still under construction, Sutton says. Designed to give students in-demand skills they can use to land jobs in the industry, it covers everything from esports history to how to negotiate professional player contracts.

The esports management concentration, on the other hand, was the subject of conversation at the arena’s opening. Tailored for students pursuing degrees in hospitality and tourism management through the university’s business school, the academic track includes credited coursework in all aspects of esports operations.

“You can’t look at the numbers around esports and not get excited about the career opportunities,” Sutton says. “When we talk about esports, it’s not just gaming, and it’s definitely not just about becoming a professional gamer. It’s everything within the esports ecosystem, the people and the jobs that make the industry run.”

WATCH: A cutting-edge esports advantage at Full Sail University.

Esports Academics Help Students Adapt to an Emerging Industry

It’s those numbers, in fact, that have led colleges across the country to the same conclusion as UNCG: Esports belongs in the academic fold.

By one estimate, global esports revenue will approach $1.8 billion in 2022. That’s up from less than $1 billion in 2020, but it’s also just the beginning in terms of what analysts see coming down the road.

“In every way you can imagine, things are bigger, things are better, things are stronger” than they were just a few years ago, notes Michael Brooks, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Esports. As North America’s largest member association of varsity esports programs in the higher ed space, NACE has benefited from the industry’s boom, he says. “As we look ahead, we’re only expecting more — more interest, more growth and no end in sight.”

The primary reason for his optimism, Brooks explains, is the fact that so many higher ed institutions now see esports as more than fun and games. “By far, the biggest evolution we’ve seen is the new academic programming that schools are offering. They’re looking at the industry, and it’s moving so fast that it’s all they can do to try to keep up.”

One institution where that’s certainly the case is James Madison University in Virginia.

“With esports, it’s kind of like the Wild West,” says Nick Swayne, former executive director of JMU X-Labs, an interdisciplinary program where students learn to solve problems through innovation and creativity. JMU X-Labs officially launched its own competitive gaming program last spring, signing on as a member of ECAC Esports, a division of the Eastern College Athletic Conference.

“The first thing we did was develop a strategic plan for how esports would fit on campus,” Swayne recalls. He and his colleagues were adamant, for example, that the program be inclusive and diverse, so they committed to establishing a JMU chapter of The*gameHERS, a gaming organization that supports women and members of the LGBTQ community.

The vision, explains JMU X-Labs Assistant Director Karris Atkins, was to create “an inviting, inclusive space to share experiences in gaming while developing students professionally, physically and personally, helping them to fortify relationships that prove valuable throughout their lives.”

Swayne says that the question of how to link the new program to the emerging esports industry overall was also key. With that in mind, he and other university leaders met with faculty to discuss potential academic opportunities, and they eventually developed several esports-focused courses they now offer students through JMU X-Labs.


The percentage of students in JMU X-Labs’ esports program who are interested in pursuing careers in the industry

Source: JMU X-Labs

Esports and Tournament Execution, for example, explores the economic impact of the gaming industry while focusing on the project management skills required to successfully develop an esports tournament. Special Topics in Communication Studies covers strategic communication planning for esports organizations.

“What’s really exciting is that we have students coming in here who are majoring in subjects all across the board, and most have never considered starting a career in esports,” Swayne says. His team hopes to change that by “connecting the dots” between competitive gaming and the various fields that relate to it.

“You’re studying accounting or you’re studying financing? Well, guess what? Esports has accountants,” Swayne says. “Esports has finance directors. There are so many ways to get in on this industry, and that’s what we’re trying to show.”

READ MORE: Lessons learned from collegiate esports investments.

Butler University Evolves from Competition to Career Development

A higher ed leader with a similar take on the promise of esports in college and beyond is Eric Kammeyer, director of esports and gaming technology at Butler University. Butler has had an official esports program on campus since 2017, Kammeyer notes, and the Indianapolis institution is about to celebrate the grand opening of its 7,500-square-foot Butler Esports Park.

Back in May, the university graduated its first student with a minor in esports communications. The curriculum in that interdisciplinary program, which draws from Butler’s communications and business schools, includes courses ranging from Sports Shooting & Editing to Media Analytics and Principles of Marketing.

“For us, this has been years in the making,” Kammeyer says. “It’s involved working not only with students and faculty but people and organizations in the Indianapolis community.”

Those organizations include the city of Indianapolis itself, which stands to benefit from the publicity and foot traffic that will come as Butler hosts esports events, and it includes companies in the competitive gaming sector that will be leasing space in the new facility.

Click the link below to find out why one university went all-in on its esports arena.

“With them, it’s really a partnership,” Kammeyer explains. Butler’s students will be using the companies’ technologies as they practice and compete in esports events, and they’ll also have access to their industry expertise through internships and other experiential opportunities.

In the end, Kammeyer says, esports at Butler has to do with diversifying the university’s offerings to match the needs and interests of modern students.

“We want to be able to say, ‘If you come to Butler, look at this facility we have here, and look at these curricular opportunities that go along with it.’”

There may be a few students who enroll at the institution who hope to play esports professionally one day, but they’re the exception to the rule, he says. “For everyone else, here’s what we can do: We can help you with the education you need to get started in an esports career.”

For the esports industry to thrive, Kammeyer notes, it needs business leaders, computer scientists, IT specialists and communications professionals. It needs people to design cutting-edge esports businesses and people who know how to make those facilities run.

“That’s where I think higher ed can make a difference,” he says. “We can give them esports on campus and we can give them a path to a career.”

Photography by Martin Kane, University of North Carolina Greensboro

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