eSports scholarships are the way of the future.
Last week, Ohio's Ashland University made history, creating the first collegiate scholarship for the video game Fortnite.
Ashland is the newest school hopping on the rapidly-growing eSports bandwagon, but with this recent move, they've set a new precedent. While many eSports scholarships are centered on a genre, (for example NYU's EVO scholarship is mainly focused on students who play fighting games) Ashland has decided to narrow its focus to a specific title, adding a Fortnite squad to go along with its Overwatch and League of Legends teams. This will allow Ashland, with its limited resources, to compete in specific collegiate eSports tournaments without forcing it to invest too much capital.
That said, Fortnite is a strange choice for a scholarship program. The game is insanely popular, but it doesn't have a strong unified league yet, and while there are tournaments, Fortnite isn't that big of a deal in the competitive gaming community. This is partially due to the fact that the game is less than a year old, but there's still no guarantee that its popularity will translate into the world of professional gaming.
Ashland's commitment to a recent, less-established title marks a significant change in the way college sports programs operate. Ashland isn't creating a team based on confirmed profitability or a rich history of competition. Fortnite isn't League of Legends. There aren't 25 million dollar prize pools associated with Fortnite tournaments. Ashland is making an educated bet, hoping that Fortnite lives up to its potential. If Ashland's athletic department bet correctly and Fortnite manages to become a major player, then they'll have gotten there first, making Ashland a major competitor in any and all NCAA Fortnite tournaments by default.
Ashland's eSports logo
But why Fortnite? Well, unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably noticed Fortnite's popularity, as well as its cultural influence. It's not just nerds playing either. Both athletes and musicians (including but not limited to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Drake, Logic, and Ben Simmons) are just as obsessed with the game as its biggest fanboys. On top of this, the Twitch community is in love with watching top Fortnite players. For example, Ninja, the gamer who was recently featured in Forbes for monetizing his stream to the tune of $500,000 per month, recently hosted an event in Vegas that garnered close to 700,000 concurrent viewers.
Still, for all of the money being invested in individual players, outside of a few minor tournaments hosted by Epic Games, (Fortnite's developer) competitive matches have been few and far between. One reason for this, is the games mechanics (if you're unfamiliar with how Fortnite works, read this). Because loot and weapons placement is random, there's a certain element of luck involved in Fortnite matches. While some treat this like the NFL treats rain, there is a certain contingency of players who feel uncomfortable leaving professional matches up to chance. Still, even considering the gripes of a few gamers, the market is clearly there, and Fortnite's transition to the world of eSports is more a question of when rather than if.
Collegiate eSports fans
In order to understand why a college might invest in eSports, via scholarships or participation in various competitions, it's important to realize that college sports are first and foremost a money-making operation. College athletes famously go unpaid, while universities rake in tons from ticket/concession sales. The moral failings of the NCAA aside, colleges invest in the sports, or in this case eSports, that they think will make them money. That said, the barriers to entry to the world of NCAA football or basketball are extreme. These programs take years to build, and this doesn't even take the cost of stadiums, road trips, and equipment into account.
According to a report, it costs a school in the SEC over $150,000 a year for each student athlete they enroll. That's a lot of overhead for a small college. eSports on the other hand, are relatively cheap equipment-wise and don't necessarily require a stadium. By investing in a smaller game, with a more niche eSports community, Ashland University is giving us a glimpse into the future of the NCAA. While athletic powerhouses like Penn State, Duke, and Notre Dame will likely start investing in the more popular eSports, the world of professional gaming is so vast that smaller colleges have the chance to compete by investing in games that haven't yet hit their peak in terms of competitive play.
The eSports industry is currently valued at around $900 million, and while the IOC has said no to violent video games, there are still talks that eSports could be included in the Olympics in 2024. With this in mind, it's hard to imagine a world in which eSports don't become supremely popular. The wide array of video games also promises to help democratize the NCAA a bit. With so many titles to choose from, schools that were never known for their athletics departments will have a chance to excel at specific games. Whether or not eSports constitute athletics is debatable, but one thing is certain, gaming has become an extremely marketable skill and an invaluable part of the college landscape.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, PopDust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff
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