Feb 23 2022

Maximizing ROI: Lessons from Collegiate Esports Investments

A roundtable of esports experts explain how the right technology can boost esports ROI in higher education.

Higher education has long embraced sports as a way to attract students and drive donations. But turning esports in particular into a lucrative alternative revenue stream is no easy task. It requires a high degree of student engagement and players being able to compete effectively.

In short, colleges and universities need high-end technology and a strong tech strategy to realize ROI on their esports efforts.

To get a sense of how schools are exploring the financial possibilities of esports, we reached out to Karen Ruggles, varsity esports program director at DeSales UniversityMark Deppe, esports director at the University of California, IrvineAdam Antor, director of esports at Florida Southern College; and Doug Konopelko, national esports manager at CDW.

EXPLORE: How Southern University's head coach convinced leadership to see the value of esports.

EDTECH: How can esports generate ROI for a university?

Karen Ruggles: When students are engaged on campus, they are much more likely to stay year after year. Upon graduation, they are more likely to be invested in an active alumni role because they associate belonging and value to esports. For players, they have their team, the excitement of playing a season of something they enjoy and a sense of belonging as they see the university supporting them in the activity they enjoy. For students outside the player base, they can find a sense of belonging through varsity events on campus and watching and rooting for their friends from the comfort of their dorm rooms.

Mark Deppe: Our program has generated over $1 million in corporate sponsorships, both cash and product. We have generated over $1 million in philanthropy. Compared with the cost of the program, that means we’re probably just about breaking even over the course of time. Schools are mostly trying to make revenue through esports by increasing enrollment. If your cost of attendance is $35,000 or $40,000 per student, and you only have to invest maybe $5,000 or $10,000 per student for the esports program, then that could be a revenue generator.

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Adam Antor: In general, smaller institutions experience a near-immediate, complete ROI on esports in the form of additional tuition dollars from new students. For larger institutions, the value of esports lies in retention and adding value to the student experience rather than on a short-term increase in enrollment. At a previous institution, I led a program that brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional tuition revenue every year, even after deducting out the expenses of running a competitive esports program.

Doug Konopelko: Esports can bring in more students, which means more tuition for the university. It attracts students whose affiliation to the school will be through esports and gaming. There’s also the viewer base — students who are not going to get involved with the program but who choose the school in part because they really enjoy that their school supports and celebrates gaming and esports.

RELATED: 3 successful esports recruitment strategies and why they worked for these colleges.

EDTECH: How can the right technologies help support this?

Karen Ruggles: The system has to have certain reliability, processing and GPU abilities. The peripherals, such as a mouse and keyboard that are used in a general computing lab, will not suffice.

Mark Deppe: You’ve got to have a pretty competent esports arena, with the right tools so that students can play competitively. One of our corporate sponsors is Logitech. They provide all our peripherals, so our athletes get to choose between the finest mice, keyboards and headsets. Those are important, as they’re what connects athletes to the computers, and people are really picky about those. They really want high-quality instruments.

DISCOVER: A new look for esports competition spaces.

Adam Antor: The right technologies can aid institutions in their recruitment efforts as well as provide esports directors and coaches the resources to be more efficient in their workdays. By investing properly up front, an institution can create a space that is attractive to prospective students, offer PCs that do not need to be replaced as quickly and create a space that supports consistent growth in their esports program.

Doug Konopelko: It’s primarily a specialized PC, a specialized set of peripherals and a specialized monitor. All of that is the backbone. The programs you’re using are very graphics intensive, so your standard off-the-shelf equipment just won’t cut it. Specialized peripherals are important because of the faster reaction time. You want to be able to individualize and personalize the settings. That’s really important to the players.

Headshot of Adam Antor
By investing properly up front, an institution can create a space that is attractive to prospective students, offer PCs that do not need to be replaced as quickly and create a space that supports consistent growth in their esports program."

Adam Antor Director of Esports at Florida Southern College

EDTECH: Can you point to specific technology that helped drive ROI?

Karen Ruggles: Having a dedicated esports arena helped with recruitment. Students do not want to walk into a regular computer lab with old equipment that just anyone can come into. If you want to make esports something you can recruit for, you’ll have to invest in the technology to support your students and allow them to play without distractions or hurdles.

Mark Deppe: On the PCs, people really care about the graphics card because that affects the refresh rate. People also care about the monitors: The higher the refresh rate, the less blinking you’ll see, especially in first-person shooter games. Our Asus monitors allow for a premier esports experience.

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Adam Antor: Most esports programs currently use gaming monitors that operate at 144 hertz. By investing a couple of hundred dollars more per monitor, our program outfitted our arena with MSI 24.5-inch, 240hz monitors, and the reactions from our current students and prospective students proved the investment was worth every penny. We also chose to invest in professional audio equipment for our broadcast space.

Doug Konopelko: It’s not about a single piece of technology; it’s about understanding the full ecosystem of what you need to bring in. Esports programs require more than specialized computers. They require a dedicated networking infrastructure, dedicated furniture and, to really bring in students, a dedicated space. To best support an esports program, you need to look at the entire ecosystem.

FIND OUT: How esports are being used in higher ed classrooms.

EDTECH: Overall, what’s a sound esports tech investment strategy?

Karen Ruggles: Understand the growth trajectory expectations of your institution and the support that can be offered by the staff. The equipment itself needs to be powerful enough to run the competitive titles and should create a positive experience for the students during practice. For peripherals, we have 27-inch, 144Hz Asus monitors and Corsair 16000DPI mice, cherry red mechanical keyboards, headsets and gaming mats.

Mark Deppe: You don’t want to limp in with some small, cheap laptops because that’s not going to get you where you want to go. You can start with 10 or 15 PCs, just make sure they’re high-quality. Start small. Start with just a few pieces but go deep in terms of making you sure you have high-quality computers.

Adam Antor: The technology investment strategy should directly correlate with the goals of the institution when it comes to its esports initiatives. A relatively small investment of $100,000 or less is quickly becoming the bare minimum and will not lead to an easy road when it comes to recruitment and enrollment initiatives around esports.

Doug Konopelko: You need to have goals and a plan for how to get there. It’s not just, “I want this to bring in 25 new students because that equals X number of dollars.” You also need incremental goals that get you there. Even if you don’t have the budget to do all of this at once, you map out where you’re going. Then, you’re able to contact community partners to raise more funding. The biggest thing is to really be intentional in the planning.

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

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