The Advancement Angle: Shifting from Football to 'Fortnite'
Virtual commencements. Online classes. Virtual galas. Online auctions. Virtual 5Ks. In this COVID-19 era, it seems that there are fewer and fewer things that aren’t being tested or fully embraced as online or virtual offerings…except for traditional athletics programs.
Some community colleges—many of which had already reduced or eliminated certain sports programs—are already suspending athletics for the 2020-21 academic year due to the COVID-19 crisis. At a time when even major sports leagues have suspended their seasons or are only just now thinking about broadcasting events from empty stadiums, how can community college athletics possibly hope to survive?
As it turns out, online athletics have already been a rising phenomenon among community colleges that predates the current pandemic. But we’re talking Fortnite, not football. We’re talking esports.
Once a niche activity presumed to be the sole domain of the socially impaired, video games have become a $120 billion industry embraced by more than two billion gamers around the world. Esports are a parallel industry, featuring team-based video game competitions watched in person or online. The global esports market was projected to reach $1.1 billion in 2019, a 26.7% year-over-year growth rate compared to 2018, according to gaming researcher NewZoo. That same study reports that global esports audiences were projected to grow to nearly 454 million people. But that was back in early 2019. In our coronavirus-fueled “new normal” of social distancing, I can only imagine what those numbers may become in 2020 and beyond.
I’m sure the National Association of Collegiate Esports is doing much more than imagining. A nonprofit membership organization devoted to varsity esports programs at colleges and universities, NACE was founded in 2016. It now counts 170 member institutions, including approximately 20 community colleges with teams competing in everything from Super Smash Brothers to SMITE. Even the National Junior College Athletic Association has launched NJCAA Esports, a national governing body dedicated to providing guidance for two-year colleges looking to build and operate esports programs.
In 2019, Central Maine Community College hit its highest enrollment ever at 3,200 students, thanks in part to the launch of its esports team, which attracted 80 students across a dozen teams. The launch of a new 1,600-square-foot esports arena yielded the college’s highest turnout for a campus open house. As of November 2019, the college already had 200 applications from prospective students interested in playing esports in fall 2020.
“We had students who…had never communicated before,” says Andrew Morong, CMCC’s director of admissions and high school relations. “You put them together on an esports team and they realize they have something in common, and they start talking, and then you see them later in the week getting meals together.”
Sounds like the student bonding experience that alumni relations dreams are made of.
Let’s follow that alumni relations line of thought further: Teams are ready-made, tightly knit affinity groups. An alumni reunion for an esports program could mean a friendly Overwatch gaming competition between two alumni, or alumni teams, broadcast on Twitch. It could mean inviting a successful e-athlete alumna/us to host a gaming session with a Q&A. And that’s just the beginning.
Successful e-athletes also wield significant earning potential and influence. As of January 2020, the top 10 e-athletes have earned anywhere from $3.6 million to $6.9 million. None of them are over 30 years old. Admittedly, just as in other sports, this level of success is reserved for a very small fraction of athletes. However, alumni of other sports programs often give back to the institutions that gave them the opportunity to continue to play the sports that they love.
Other staples of advancement are also just beginning to bloom. Corporate sponsorships are possible, as Central Maine Community College can attest, thanks to Carbonite, Inc.’s $10,000 gift and designation as sponsor of the CMCC esports athletic program for the 2019-20 academic year. Some colleges, like Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, are even offering esports scholarships. NACE itself has provided $16 million in scholarships and aid to participating in students.
All in all, in esports I see a sports program with a lower start-up cost than traditional athletics programs. I see potential enrollment growth at a time when enrollment has, for many, seen a year-over-year decline for far too long. I see new and exciting collaborative learning opportunities between esports and graphic design, marketing, computer science, event management, and other academic programs. I see a rapidly growing industry that demands a specialized workforce for both direct employment and support services. I see potential internships and sponsorships, scholarships, and exciting new alumni relations opportunities.
Due to this global pandemic, we have all been sailing in uncharted waters for many days and will continue to do so for many days ahead. We do not know where COVID-19 will lead us or what its lasting effect will be on our students, communities, country, or even the world. While issues of emergency grants, CARES Act guidance, PPE donations, online classes, virtual events, and more will continue to fill much of our time, it’s nice now and again to look at all of this from another angle to see what opportunities may emerge—from a socially acceptable distance, of course.
About the author(s)
For more information about CASE's community college resources, contact Marc Westenburg, director of the center for community college advancement, at email@example.com or +1 202-478-5570.