Students at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth learn and play at the institution's cutting-edge esports facility.

May 28 2024

Collegiate Esports Programs Serve as Recruitment and Retention Tools

High-quality equipment and robust competitive and academic offerings can attract prospective students.

More than 200 colleges and universities are now home to varsity teams in the field of competitive video gaming. With growing interest in esports, many are looking to develop their club and varsity programs to attract potential students.

At the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, for example, competitive video gaming is proving to be a powerful tool for recruitment and retention. More than 8,600 high schools have started gaming teams, according to the National Education Association, and UMass Dartmouth is looking to leverage that momentum.

“As more high schools develop esports programs, having such a program on campus makes us that much more competitive,” says Stacy Ploskonka, UMass Dartmouth’s assistant director of student activities.

Cutting-edge equipment is key to attracting students who have a serious interest in gaming. With a new, fully equipped esports arena for the 180-plus members of its esports club, supported by in-kind donations from CDW, UMass Dartmouth has put itself in a strong position.

At schools around the nation, higher ed leaders say that top-of-the-line equipment is essential for institutions looking to maximize the recruitment and retention value of esports.

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Esports Programs Help Universities Attract Talent

As college enrollments drop, campus leaders are searching for new ways to draw potential students. With new high school esports clubs forming all the time, gamers represent a strong potential demographic in the eyes of recruiters.

“Students really like gaming, and we’re giving them the opportunity to do something that they never thought could be a career pathway,” says Josh Steger, director of esports at West Virginia University. “You can go to college for this? Yes, and if you’re good enough, you can play competitively at the college level.”

Schools aren’t using esports to recruit only players. A college esports program typically involves media production, graphic design, broadcasting and a host of other skills. A robust program acts as a draw to those students too.

The UMass Dartmouth esports program, for example, has the potential to support the university’s College of Engineering and College of Visual and Performing Arts programs. “We hope to get to a point where game design and software design students will be able to test their games with our esports players,” Ploskonka says.

To ensure engagement, the school established a Society of Gamers, “a living-learning community that creates a home for some of those involved in esports,” says Kimberly Scott, vice chancellor of student affairs at UMass Dartmouth. “The Society of Gamers community has 100 percent retention from spring to fall semester.”

She notes that the school has also focused on diversity as part of its esports recruiting effort.

“Gaming has been a male-dominated area,” she says. “Our esports program is crushing the barriers of diversity with the increased engagement of women who are now actively competing in our program.”

RELATED: Broadcasting solutions help esports programs showcase talent.

At Full Sail University, Bennett Newsome, director of esports growth and development, says the program is a draw for design majors, media students and a host of others. “Full Sail is focused on emerging technologies and entertainment media,” offering degree programs in game design and game development, Newsome says.

“At our university, the main focus is to create real-world learning opportunities — and, ultimately, career opportunities — that students can be passionate about,” he says. Competitive gaming, and the production opportunities that it creates, work in support of those goals.

Overall, experts say, esports programs empower college recruiters to cast a wider net.

Gaming represents an opportunity to attract “players who do not participate in traditional extracurriculars or athletic programs,” says James Wood, scholastic tournament administrator at the Network of Academic and Scholastic Esports Federations. “It also allows colleges to recruit for different components beyond just the competitive teams. Schools will often recruit students based on their ability to participate in broadcasting, on their communication skills, or even their graphic design or video editing portfolios.”

Among the players themselves, “there’s a huge demand for the opportunity to represent your school in a competitive setting,” he says. For students who don’t play basketball or football, “esports fills a niche that traditional sports do not.”



In Collegiate Esports, Technology Matters

Top-notch gaming platforms, accessories, broadcast equipment and networking infrastructure all are key to a successful esports program.

At UMass Dartmouth’s new state-of-the-art facility, gaming stations are equipped with Spectrum sit-to-stand desks; Genova gaming chairs; Lenovo Legion computer systems and monitors; Logitech headsets, keyboards and mice; and a Spectrum Esports Shoutcaster broadcast station.

Cutting-edge equipment “is critical to esports,” Ploskonka says.

“The partnership between the university and CDW equipped the facility for the esports arena and specialized technology for the esports games, which run on our Wi-Fi network,” she says. Thanks to that high-end technology, “we are able to compete with other schools across the nation.”

In competitive gaming, “the students want to know that the equipment they play on can run the game at a high level and get the refresh rates they want,” says Steger, whose WVU arena is equipped with Alienware PCs and monitors, Dell mouse and keyboard devices, and a Dell P7524QT 75-inch UHD 4K commercial monitor. “Our players want to try to go pro, so we have to make sure that the standard of our arena meets their expectations.”

In some games, “the response time is, like, a millisecond, and the person who’s able to see the other one first is the person who’s going to win,” Steger says. “You’re always trying to make sure that your refresh rate is better than your opponent so you might have that slight advantage.”

Full Sail’s esports facility, known as the Full Sail University Orlando Health Fortress, is the largest collegiate esports arena in the country. The facility offers a flexible live production space, designed to host everything from friendly campus gaming events to fully competitive collegiate tournaments. With equipment from MSI and others, the space has a 10 million-pixel LED wall to support dynamic visual presentations and graphics, seating capacity for 500 and a concert-quality PA system.

The state-of-the-art arena supports big-picture academic goals, Newsome says: “We focus on real-world education and project-based learning here.”

In the arena, “students are able to use all of the cameras, the lasers, the lighting and the technology. They’re running the show, essentially, in that space,” he says. When they go out into the work world, that gives them documented experiences to show potential employers.

On the broadcasting side, Wood says, “you need good equipment because a lot of the details that happen on the screen and in the game need to be shown to the people watching. The people who are very invested in these competitions, they will see the slightest thing happen on the screen and recognize it as a significant game event. You want your spectators who are familiar with the game to be able to recognize that.”

If you are creating a highlight reel or a video advertisement to promote your program, “you need to do that in a way that looks clean and professional,” he says. “High-quality equipment is going to help you do that.”

Stacy Ploskonka headshot
As more high schools develop esports programs, having such a program on campus makes us that much more competitive.”

Stacy Ploskonka Assistant Director of Student Activities, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Marketing an Esports Program Can Be a Useful Recruitment Tool

Schools take different approaches to leveraging esports as a recruiting tool.

At UMass Dartmouth, esports competitors are on the front lines. “When it comes to recruitment, the players themselves participate in all of the admissions programs: the open houses and the admitted student day events,” Ploskonka says.

Participating students can describe the program from their personal experience. “Our esports members provide a student perspective on life as a gamer at UMASS Dartmouth,” she says. “New students immediately connect with our esports team as they get firsthand information about the games, technology and experiences of those involved in our program.”

A top-notch gaming space is also a key differentiator.

“Having an esports facility with specialized technology and hard-wired internet to run the esports games is a big selling point,” Ploskonka says. A well-equipped space is a major draw, especially “for students who want to have a place to go and the potential to play these games competitively.”

Photography by Ken Richardson

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