eSports Takes Off

students practice their eSports skillsAt Redlands Community College, a varsity team is training for big competitions in one of the most popular and competitive sports today.

If you think football or soccer is the most watched sporting event globally, think again. eSports have surpassed both as the most popular sporting event to watch, and Redlands Community College is joining the competition with its new eSports program, which launched in Spring 2021 with the generous support of the Redlands Community College Foundation.

Although the NFL’s 2019 Super Bowl attracted 98 million viewers, the “League of Legends” eSports World Championship beat those numbers, attracting 100 million unique viewers through streaming services like Twitch. 

The popularity of eSports online gaming isn’t just a passing fad or limited to a group of kids playing video games in mom’s basement. It’s now a global movement, and Redlands Community College students are getting in on the game.

Redlands Community College started its own eSports program in a year ago, and Professor of Political Science Jeffrey Sheldon is the new coach over the program. 

“It has been at Redlands only in the last year. We have this arena and this new lab, and it's brand new,” he said. “As a spectator sport, Twitch really got its big jump four years ago when people started saying, ‘Oh, we can watch stuff and it doesn't have to be on ESPN or ABC or NBC.’ It’s like watching sports where you have commentators and desk analysis. It feels like watching Sunday afternoon football except you are watching people gaming online.”

Although the eSports Club and lab are open to all students, the team competes against other colleges and university eSports teams throughout the semester, much like traditional sports teams do. The e-athletes compete in such games as Overwatch, Valorant, League of Legends, Rocket League and Super Smash Brothers Ultimate.

“I think the administration saw eSports as a rising trend,” said Sheldon. “So rather than be a trend follower, they're being the trendsetter.”

When summer rolled around, Sheldon received an email about the budding eSports program needing an advisor and coach.

“I love gaming. Why wouldn't I be interested? I told the administration I was interested in coaching, and the next thing I know, here I am,” Sheldon said. “It is still a little surreal.  I can tell my parents now that I legitimately am playing video games for a living and it's paying off.”

Not only is collegiate eSports legit, it’s growing into a new career path for many students.

According to the National Association of Collegiate eSports (NACE), a nonprofit membership association developing the structure and tools needed to advance collegiate eSports in the varsity space, the first ever Collegiate eSports Summit was held in 2016 in Kansas City, MO. 

At that time only seven colleges and universities had varsity eSports programs. Since then, U.S. colleges and universities have since launched varsity programming, with a current count of 170+ institutions signing on. 

The first university that created a formal eSports program with varsity status and scholarships was Robert Morris University in Illinois, which unveiled their program in 2014. By 2019, according to ESPN, more than 100 varsity eSports programs were in full swing. LF Group found in 2020 nearly 200 varsity programs in gaming.

The eSports trend only continues to increase. In July, NACE announced a multi-company partnership with CSL eSports, a Playfly Sports company, Nerd Street Gamers (Nerd Street), North America’s largest eSports infrastructure company, and Mainline, the leading software company in collegiate eSports, to establish NACE Starleague, which will become the largest collegiate eSports league in North America with more than 14,500 students from 600 colleges and universities.

“Our partnership will bring together the largest number of North American institutions and students that collegiate eSports has ever seen,” said Michael Brooks, executive director of NACE in a press release.  “Working together with some of the biggest powerhouses in the collegiate eSports industry enables us to bring the greatest value to students and administrators while maintaining the institutional voice for students and staff.”

Now universities and colleges are even offering eSport scholarships to talented gamers as well as pathways to careers associated with gaming. According to AthleticDirectorU, in the 2015-16 academic year, eSports scholarships totaled $2.5 million nationally. By 2019, national scholarships for eSports increased 600 to $15 million.

“You can’t ignore this anymore,” said Sheldon.

Redlands plans to begin offering scholarships in the near future.

“We are excited to see this program grow,” said Jena Marr, Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff. “The Redlands Foundation has been instrumental in helping us purchase the equipment for the eSports arena. The next step is providing these students with scholarships so they can earn their degree while competing.”

For Sheldon, the eSports program at Redlands is much like any other sporting program. A community of gaming enthusiasts come together in a common space to practice and compete with others.

“Now if you want to play a pickup game of video games, we have a place to do it and there's an opportunity to say, ‘alright, here's an opposition and here's a team and here is an organization and a place for you to just come and fit in,” said Sheldon.

The Redlands eSports teams competes against other colleges in a standard tournament schedule, but any student can participate in the eSports club. Students, however, can try out for the competitive teams.

“Hopefully, we will start bringing home trophies and those types of things,” Sheldon said. “Our program is two-tiered. We have the social club where, if you want a place to play a game, then come. If you want to compete and win, then let’s talk when you get here.”

Students on the competitive teams must fulfill grade and attendance obligations, much like any other collegiate sporting team, Sheldon added. 

“This isn’t the place to neglect your schoolwork.” he said. “But the eSports tournaments function just like a real tournament except instead of people going to a sports arena to do it, they're at their gaming houses or their gaming labs. It’s the same format and same structure. It just looks different because instead of people running on a court, it's people clicking on keyboards.

“It's unreal how it's gone from playing the sport on the field to playing something in a chair, and it's still considered a sport or competitive arena,” said Sheldon. “My nephew is a senior in high school. He has lettered in eSports in his high school and he's looking for a scholarship to colleges in eSports.”

With eSports already a billion-dollar industry, Redlands Community College is embracing its moniker of “trendsetter” in the eSports arena.

“The Redlands eSports Club has really grown in this first year,” Sheldon said. “I’m very happy that I don't have to be looking for student participation. The students are having a blast playing each other, trying new games and making new friends.”