David Vest had plenty of college options as he looked forward to his high school graduation in Lexington, Ky., last year. To the surprise of some of his friends, he chose Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa.
The draw was esports. Hawkeye had a new program, and Vest was friends with the coach. Now, as captain of his college’s varsity League of Legends team, Vest has joined the growing ranks of student athletes for whom competitive video-gaming has become a vital part of their college experience.
His days and evenings are built around classes, team practices and competitions.
“It’s not much different from any other sport,” Vest said.
A new ‘tool’ for colleges
Community colleges around the country are turning to varsity esports as a way to recruit and engage students and create excitement on campuses.
“They’re the third wave,” said Michael Brooks, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Esports. “That’s been the group that was lagging and it seems to have greatly accelerated.”
Smaller four-year colleges were the first to recognize the recruiting and student life potential in video game competition, Brooks said. Larger universities were next. Now, Brooks hears from two-year colleges almost daily. Nineteen have joined his association, which is an offshoot of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in Kansas City and has grown from six founding member schools in 2016 to nearly 200 today.
Why it’s a good fit
Esports checks several boxes for community colleges. It doesn’t require large fields or athletic facilities. Practices and competitions can take place at times that fit the schedules of commuter students. And — while most collegiate esports competitors are men — the game is well-suited for coed teams, and also for older students and students with physical disabilities.
One of the newest members of the collegiate esports association is Montgomery County Community College in southeast Pennsylvania. It hosted its first pre-season practice in early November and plans to begin team practices and competition in the spring.
A survey a year ago showed robust interest among students in competitive esports, said Kelly Dunbar, director of athletics. The college invested in 20 high-end computers. And it worked with a local YMCA to develop an overall fitness program for team members, featuring aspects such as eye-hand coordination, nutrition and mental health, and stamina.
For every hour spent at a computer practicing gaming, team members will be expected to spend an equivalent hour in the fitness center, esports coordinator Ryan Plummer said. They’ll also have to take 12 credit hours and maintain good grades.
“We’re taking an all-around approach to be successful,” Dunbar said.
Developing critical skills
The emphasis on overall fitness is partly to combat concerns among parents and taxpayers that computer games are a brain-numbing distraction that diverts students from academics and healthy exercise. That lingering perception troubles esports boosters.
Gaul, who coaches three teams, said esports creates an opportunity for his student athletes to practice time management, teamwork, communication and strategy.
“These things are happening on a very consistent basis,” he said.
Dave Ball, director of athletics at Hawkeye Community College, said his school has worked hard to make gaming resemble a team sport, not a club. The college created an arena in its student life center, where practices and online competitions are visible to students who pass by. Esports athletes are outfitted with jerseys and other team gear.
“It’s built a sense of community and pride with our student athletes,” Ball said.
The money factor
Esports is not a single game, but a universe of games, each requiring its own expertise. Colleges organize teams to compete in specific games, with the most popular being League of Legends, the Overwatch League and Rocket League.
Hawkeye sponsors League of Legends and Overwatch teams. About half of the school’s 26 esport athletes receive partial tuition scholarships, Ball said. Most of the team’s operating money comes from a combination of college general fund revenues, student activity fees and sponsors.
“We are in the black as far as esports,” Ball said.
While the esports industry is flush with cash, colleges are still coming to terms with the monetary aspects. Unlike with traditional intercollegiate sports, prize money can go to individual competitors. But while some colleges allow student athletes to keep their earnings, many have restrictions.
Gaul said prize money earned by members of his teams goes directly into their tuition accounts. He is squeamish about community college students earning money from intercollegiate competition. While the NCAA so far has declined to govern esports, Gaul thinks it’s a matter of time. He worries about athletes’ future eligibility if they accept cash awards.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to deal with all that,” he said.
Recruits for four-years, too
But coaches and others see plenty of ways for community college players to benefit from esports. They are prime recruits for four-year schools seeking to build their programs. And intercollegiate competition gives them first-hand knowledge of a burgeoning field.
Vest, who enrolled at Hawkeye as a civil engineering major, said he plans to switch to a liberal arts major with an eye toward a potential job in esports. The University of Kentucky, he noted, just announced the creation of a major esports program. Vest thinks that might lead to opportunities in his hometown.
For now, Vest is busy with the life of a student athlete. That begins with classes in the morning. If he has time, he’ll fit in a gym workout, which for Vest acts as a “stress burn.”
“If I have a bad night or play poorly, I’ll feel bad, but I’ll go to the gym and be able to forget about it,” he said.
By mid-afternoon, he’s at practice with his teammates in the esports arena at the Brock Student Center on campus.
Esports athletes at Hawkeye commit to 15 to 20 hours a week, which includes team study time. They compete on many evenings and weekends, although matches often take place virtually and don’t require travel.
Competing at a high level in esports requires stamina, quick thinking and the ability to compete under pressure. But unlike traditional sports, like soccer, the public doesn’t often see that, Vest said.
“I think the biggest misperception is that playing competitive esports doesn’t make us athletes,” Vest said. “I’m an athlete. I’m here with my team to compete for my college.”