In August 2019 I gave a keynote at DiGRA (a game studies conference) on the subject of esports and networked broadcasting. At the end, I offered the following remarks on collegiate esports. One quick additional note, after the talk I was struck by how many faculty came up to me to say they are being tapped by their university (simply by virtue of being “the games person”) to help manage an esports program despite feeling unequipped to do so. They sense things are amiss (often they are being brought in after biz dev convos with third parties have happened) but aren’t sure where to turn. If you are one of those folks please start by taking at look at the resources over at AnyKey. We also have a Discord server I am happy to shoot you an invite to if you’d like to connect up with others who care about some of the following critical issues.
Let me finally turn to a few remarks about collegiate esports. Several years ago when Morgan Romine and I first launched AnyKey I remember thinking that while we were seeing the professional esports space accelerate at rates that were making it harder and harder to intervene on diversity and inclusion issues, collegiate still gave me hope.
While there are serious participation challenges on campuses, I was struck over and over again when I talked to student leaders how many of them wanted their clubs to be better. Collegiate esports, pre-live streaming boom, were largely grassroots and informally organized by students themselves. The numbers of women working hard to facilitate campus clubs was amazing (…this is still the case by the way. Collegiate esports is made possible by a huge amount of women’s labor behind the scenes, labor I’d note that is largely going un-scholarshiped while men on varsity teams are getting financial support).
But I’ll tell you that I was naïve in not seeing how quickly commercial models, amplified by broadcasting, would impact colleges. And I was naïve about how willing administrators and yes, even some faculty, would be to hand it over.
Given I have an opportunity now to speak directly to so many of you as fellow academics who may be embarking on working with esports on your campuses, I feel compelled to be frank and issue a serious challenge. Because collegiate esports faces a real crisis right now. Amidst the deep systemic problems we face in universities – budget cuts, precarious academic labor, rising debt and tuition – esports enters. Combined with too many complicit administrators and faculty – often driven by inattention, their own unreflective fandom, or perhaps worst of all their own desire to make a name for themselves – students are being handed over to commercial and predatory models.
One of the powerful upshots of the rise of esports as a domain of broadcast is that its media entertainment iteration has come to set more and more of the tone for the space writ large. This is one of the upshots of the affective nature of live streaming. It has the power to move us, to shape practice, to shape taste, to offer imagined possibilities. This is certainly part of why live streaming has had such a profound impact on not only esports, but game culture more broadly. In turn, collegiate clubs, league structures, broadcasts, values, and aesthetics are increasingly attuning themselves to pro leagues and players who they encounter at every turn. The commercial models have largely become the waypoint.
Just as importantly, third parties have started to see the collegiate space as one in which there is money to be made. Sometimes this is though building platforms or services to facilitate collegiate play, sometimes it’s selling data back to students. Sometimes it’s built on dreams of monetizing collegiate gaming in the ways traditional college sports have become a massive media and marketing product.
And frankly, too many of the administrators and faculty working with esports clubs are centering commercial models in their programs and paying too little attention to massive critical issues that have to be tackled. They are not putting diversity and inclusion issues front and center. They are running clubs that have no codes of conduct. They aren’t thinking about how the material conditions of gaming may be narrowing participation based on student’s socio-economic status. They are creating ethically questionable scholarship programs to boost admission numbers while more students go into greater and greater debt getting a lousy education focused on things like “learn how to stream.” Their goal is creating a “pipeline” to the commercial space and, frankly too often, feeding their own fandom and professional aspirations. Far too many academics are jumping on the esports hype train.
The more collegiate replicates pro esports and the more it turns its eye first to commercial models, the more it sells out on the promise of what could be – should be – happening on our campuses.
Collegiate esports responsibilities and accountabilities do not lay with a notion of a broadcast audience or market, nor, frankly, with creating a “pipeline” to professional esports (or, I’d add, STEM programs).
At the heart of our programs should be the values of broad participation, inclusion, equity (not fake meritocracy), and creativity. It should be student well-being. It should be understanding that esports sits within an academic framework, and not the other way around. It should be about challenging our students to do better than the commercial broadcast models. And it should be about us helping them and mentoring them, to do just that. To create something better than the commercial esports space we have right now.
So, for those of you embarking on collegiate esports and working with your campus club, let me pose a few questions:
- Is your club reflecting the fact that gaming is a widespread leisure activity that crosses all kinds of demographic lines?
- Are the women involved in your club largely located doing behind the scenes work to keep the ship afloat versus playing on one of the teams?
- Do you have people of color coming to your events and playing on your teams? What about your LGBTQ students?
- Have you constructed a club environment that supports play beyond mainstream models focused on games like League or Dota? That materially facilitates play that isn’t just on PC’s?
Far too often our collegiate clubs are failing when it comes to thinking about participation in meaningfully expansive, enriching ways.
Let me leave you with just a few practical takeaways [forthcoming in a longer AnyKey paper] if you are finding yourself now working with your campus esports club:
- Perform a diversity audit and create a plan for inclusion. Honestly assess where you club is and commit to a plan to improve.
- Take preventative approaches before punitive ones.
- Provide a code of conduct and enforce it.
- Develop programs for diverse levels, and forms of, participation. This means thinking beyond varsity. It means thinking about newbies and casual play. It means supporting things like cosplaying and the range of activities that make game culture so vibrant.
- Encourage co-ed play.
- Establish networks of support.
- Use inclusive language and establish non-discriminatory policies.
- Offer meaningful diverse representation in media broadcasts.
- Formulate holistic selection criteria for varsity teams. Dump the ideology of meritocracy rooted in abstracted stats and rankings and think about the diverse forms of value to a team.
- Invest in moderation infrastructure.
- Provide formal training for bystanders and allies.
- Incentivize and reward good social leadership.
As faculty working in this space we need to resist industry hype. We need to keep power in frame, not just corporate, platform, or commercial, but also how users – and this means our students – govern and police each other. We need to be interrogating where the future of esports participation is headed and helping imagine what it could be.
Ultimately collegiate esports should do more than the commercial space. Its accountabilities lie not with the market, not with models built around monetizable audiences, but inclusive participation and student well-being.
These are tough, deeply rooted issues built on long patterns of discrimination and exclusion. It’ll take lots of work from a variety of angles to tackle them. But ultimately experimentation for social good, for a better esports system and not just replication of the existing one, should guide us.