Raise Your Hand for Esports in Higher Education

Highlight Reel 

  • Skillz regularly connects with students, leaders in academia, and influencers across the esports industry to support young people who are passionate about pursuing gaming careers. 
  • The rise of esports in America’s schools is inspiring and preparing tomorrow’s leaders to pursue their dream jobs — in the first half of 2019 alone, the number of esports jobs grew by 185 percent.
  • In 2009, there were only 32,000 game creators. As of this year, there are 10 million. Now that anyone can create and distribute a game, the winners are chosen by the players and the democratization of game content has begun.

Games are Breaking the Box Office 

As students across the country break out their backpacks, many are gearing up to study one of the most popular subjects taking off worldwide – esports. Gaming has emerged as a $150 billion industry and global cultural phenomenon that more than tripled the worldwide box office last year. Thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets underpinning the $68.5 billion mobile gaming industry, gaming is more accessible than ever and at the forefront of mass media.

Perspectives on gaming around the world have evolved alongside the industry’s exponential growth. Countries including the United States, China, and Germany now recognize gaming as a sport, awarding gamers with P-1 visas that are prioritized exclusively for professional athletes. 

However, perhaps one of the most telling indicators of this cultural and economic revolution can be found in America’s schools. Academia has long been a bellwether of change, and esports are more than just a hobby for today’s students. Top universities across the world – including Ivy League institutions like Cornell – boast dedicated esports programs and courses to meet rising interest from students.

“Gaming is the primary driver of interaction and entertainment for younger generations, and academia is evolving to prepare, empower and inspire students to pursue careers doing what they love,” said Andrew Paradise, CEO and founder of Skillz.

Benefits of Pursuing What You Love 

Gaming has matured into an interactive and social community supporting impressive academic achievement for students. Organized esports accompany better grades and rekindled aspirations, helping students develop lasting bonds, as well as valuable leadership and communication skills. Organized esports also instill the importance of a healthy balance between work and play. 

Skillz recently spoke with Michael Fay, Director of Esports at the University of Akron who echoed the value of incorporating organized esports on college campuses. When Fay’s esports program kicked off in late 2017, the university was flooded with interest. He sees the program as a way to give students the opportunity to acquire the skills they need for jobs of the future. 

“Any university that sees a benefit from having varsity and club sports activities should consider offering esports teams too,” Fay said. “Collegiate esports offer the same opportunities as traditional sports to create a community, foster school spirit, and build character.”

In Ohio, The University of Akron and Miami University have earned acclaim for fielding some of the best esports rosters in the world, including the “Overwatch” and “Rocket League” collegiate national champions. Earlier this year, the Big Ten Conference joined the movement, launching its own esports league to compete for talent.

From top universities like Cornell on the east coast to UC Berkeley’s Cal Esports and the University of California, Irvine in the west, students are jump-starting their collegiate careers playing games competitively. Another indicator of widespread esports adoption is the formation of the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE). Headquartered in Kansas City, NACE supported only six schools when it launched in 2016. Today, the association supports over 150 esports programs and semi-professional teams, 3,500 varsity esports athletes, and has awarded over $15 million in scholarships and financial aid. 

“We provide universities across the country with a playbook including everything they need to start and run competitive esports programs,” said Michael Brooks, Executive Director at NACE. “More opportunities are evolving, including rapidly growing sectors like mobile gaming, which will continue advancing esports opportunities for anyone with a mobile device.”

The accessibility of mobile games from platforms like Skillz, which connects 17,500+ content creators with over 28 million players, is enabling fair competition for real prizes anytime, anywhere. Last year, a young woman from New Jersey and rising senior at Harvard University became a top 10 Skillz athlete. In addition to covering books and tuition by playing mobile games, she also redeemed Skillz Ticketz to treat herself and seven friends on a luxury Royal Caribbean cruise this summer. 

Similar to the offline sports world, chasing a dream of becoming a professional esports athlete can be immensely fulfilling. Several professional gaming organizations now offer jaw-dropping rewards for the most talented competitors. In 2018, “Dota 2” held a $25 million esports tournament, outweighing prizes from the Indy 500, the Stanley Cup, and the Masters. Just a few weeks ago, a 16-year-old “Fortnite” player won a $3 million grand prize at the first-ever “Fortnite” World Cup. That’s more prize money than Novak Djokovic won at Wimbledon 2019, and more money than Tiger Woods won at the 2019 Masters.

“Esports are going mainstream,” said Joel Yoo, President of UMCP Gaming at the University of Maryland. “Professional gamers are becoming serious, hot-shot celebrities on par with traditional sports athletes, and it’s impressive to watch students reach their dreams and excel in esports.”

Esports as a Career Driver 

In addition to providing entertainment value, studies also show that students engaged in esports are more likely to pursue STEM-related careers. Programmers and analysts are in high demand in our increasingly digital world, but technical careers aren’t the only opportunities for young people to join the esports industry. Game studios and esports producers are hiring a variety of professionals, including artists, writers, voice actors, economists and historians. In the first half of 2019 alone, the number of esports jobs grew by 185 percent as companies and production studios scaled alongside the thriving industry. 

“Given the rapid growth of esports job openings, more students than ever are considering careers in the gaming industry,” said Fay. “Pursuing a passion for esports exposes students to all the other jobs that exist in the space, including broadcasting, business development, marketing, social media, coaching, and management.” 

Wheels in Motion

As the industry grows, so does its need for talent. Companies like Skillz offer full-time, paid programs for young people to work directly with engineering and design experts on a mission to make gaming better with fair competition for everyone. 

“The wide variety of career options in the gaming industry has an unprecedented capacity to bring together talented, ambitious people from all walks of life,” Paradise said. “Skillz envisions a world where everyone plays games, and we need everyone to help us build it.” 

In 2009, there were only 32,000 game creators. As of this year, there are 10 million. Now that anyone can create and distribute a game, the winners are chosen by the players and the democratization of game content has begun.

“Skillz is the fair competition platform helping independent creators all over the world build sustainable businesses by retaining, engaging and monetizing users who enjoy their content,” Paradise continued. “If you compare game developers to writers, Skillz is the platform enabling someone to be the next Danielle Steel or J.K. Rowling. Or if you compare game developers to filmmakers, Skillz is the competition system enabling indie creators earn an Academy Award.”

As the world’s largest association of game developers, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) also promotes public awareness and understanding of the gaming industry. The association provides resources for students, developers, and studios worldwide, addressing important industry issues like diversity in the workplace and supports LGBTQ+, Latinx, and women developer communities. 

“A huge benefit of working in the gaming industry is being able to make a place for yourself,” said Renee Gittins, Executive Director at the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). “Gaming is an industry with roles across all disciplines, and with the power to unite communities through a shared passion for interactive entertainment and storytelling. Although not everyone may not succeed as professional gamers like Ninja, we can all come together to build an incredibly diverse, inclusive and creative digital landscape that’s driving the future of entertainment.”