In a relatively short time, esports has grown into an industry phenomenon, packing arenas with fans and helping video game companies, sports franchises, event organizers and esports pros earn some serious bank. But in rec leagues and traditional sports—the kinds that involve actual physical exertion—is dwindling. At the same time, fitness levels among kids and young adults—esports’ target demographic—are abysmal.
It’s only natural to make a connection between these two trends—and to imagine a future worst-case scenario of obese, esports-addicted generations rarely leaving the house. But some industry insiders say it’s not that simple. “I don’t see it as a cause and effect,” says Jeff Jarnecke, executive director of venues for the city of South Bend, Indiana, who previously spent 12 years as the NCAA’s director of championships and alliances.
Jarnecke points out that specialization in sports has dragged down the number of youth participants for years, long before the advent of esports. “But perhaps, in some respects, esports is accelerating the decline of certain sports in some areas,” he says.
On the positive side, however, Jarnecke says esports isn’t hampered by many of the barriers to entry that plague the increasingly specialized world of youth sports. “You can do esports from your house,” he says. “It’s agnostic with respect to physical ability, attributes or gender, and there are fewer financial and socioeconomic barriers.”
Moreover, esports is providing opportunities for NCAA member institutions to increase enrollment and recruit students who have an interest in STEM-related topics and degrees, Jarnecke says.
Schools Jump In
In Pennsylvania, the science- and technology-focused Harrisburg University launched an esports team, the HU Storm, in summer 2018. It’s the university’s only athletic program.
“We don’t have fraternities and sororities or big sports arenas, but athletics is an interesting thing for universities to get into—it helps with community building and brand exposure,” says university President Eric Darr. “Since the team’s launch, we’ve been on ESPN probably 20 times. We could never afford to buy that kind of exposure.”
Darr says the university spent about $800,000 renovating the basement of its science and arts museum to serve as the HU Storm practice facility, complete with professional-grade gaming computers, 24-inch monitors and ergonomic gaming chairs. The university also hosted Hue Festival in September 2018, where 32 esports collegiate teams competed for a grand prize pool of $50,000.
The National Federation of State High School Associations, the governing body for high school sports and activities, has also tapped into esports. In October 2018, NFHS announced its partnership with PlayVS, a high school esports league, to launch its inaugural esports season, dubbed Season Zero.
“We started looking at esports about 18 months ago and decided it was something we wanted students to have the opportunity to participate in at the high school level,” says Mark Koski, CEO of the NFHS Network.