You can play video games by yourself. You can play them with friends virtually, communicating via headset. You can even watch strangers play them live online through streaming services, at any time of day or night.
And yet, colleges across the country are transforming library rooms and dorm halls into esports arenas designed to gather gamers to play and watch together, in person. Why?
Like the major league sports franchises buying and building esports teams, colleges are undoubtedly interested in the big money that’s flowing through the video game industry. That profit motive helps explain why several institutions of higher education have invested in large new facilities equipped with state-of-the-art gaming equipment, such as the $6 million arena, named the Fortress, that Full Sail University in Florida opened last year.
But gamers with the right skills, a couple of cameras and enough followers can rake in millions playing from practically anywhere. That hasn’t stopped people who compete in digital worlds from congregating in physical spaces, whether it’s a professional team putting down roots by hosting homestand tournaments to build a fanbase or young enthusiasts flocking to community gaming centers.
To Josh Hafkin, founder of youth esports coaching center the Game Gym, the explanation is simple.
“People love to be together,” Hafkin says. “If I win, I want to turn to you and be like this,” pumping his fists in the air in an unmistakable gesture of victory.
Creating A Healthy Community
At Illinois State University, students from the competitive video game club used to haul their computers across campus to practice together. Two years ago, representatives asked college technology leaders to help them find a dedicated space to gather. Soon, the Digital Innovation, Graphics, and Gaming Studio was born.
“We were trying to create a sense of community for our gamers,” says Rob Bailey, director of student affairs IT at Illinois State University. “We know engaged students are successful students. As much as we can get them out of their dorm rooms and into community space, we know those connections help build them and set them up for success academically.”
Building community is also on the agenda at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is converting an underused dorm study hall into the Carolina Gaming Arena. Although it will be open to everyone who enjoys video games, campus leaders hope the space may appeal especially to “introverts who aren’t attracted to other programs,” says Christina Riegel, assistant director of the university department that provides IT support for residence halls.
“People play with other people on their headsets in their rooms, but it’s a different experience sitting together with your buddies,” she says.
Some Chapel Hill parents expressed skepticism about embedding what many perceive to be a potent schoolwork distraction into the very building where students live, Riegel explained at an esports panel discussion held Thursday in Washington, D.C., as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s ED Games Expo.
But she and Hunter Jamison, a student gamer who is advising the university on its new arena, believe that bringing gaming into a communal space will help campus leaders encourage gamers to adopt healthy habits.
“Going into this, we definitely had talks worrying about addiction. There are some people who don’t have the self-control to limit themselves and go do their studies,” said Jamison, who was perched in a blue gaming chair bearing the Chapel Hill logo. “People who are deeply into gaming need to have balance in their life.”
To promote that balance, the Carolina Gaming Arena may also host non-esports activities for gamers, such as yoga, he said. And its computers may be programmed with built-in time limits.
“You don’t want to build a bar on campus and then have an open tab,” Riegel said in an interview.
Community For Whom?
The gaming world is not always a welcoming environment. To serve students of all backgrounds and levels of experience, college leaders say they’re designing physical esports spaces to be as inclusive as possible.
Affordability is one top concern. A gaming console costs a few hundred dollars, and a gaming PC can easily cost over a thousand. IT and student affairs staff members say they hope campus facilities stocked with high-quality machines and popular games will help provide all students access to recreational and competitive gaming opportunities.
Supporting women is another priority. Women who play video games often encounter sexist harassment and discrimination, and even though many college club and varsity teams are theoretically co-ed, women typically participate at lower rates than men.
“We haven’t yet got the culture where women feel like they can come out and play competitively,” Jamison said.
A 2019 report from AnyKey, an organization that advocates for diversity in gaming, advises colleges to consider whether the departments chosen to host esports programs and facilities, such as computer science or athletics, are fully welcoming to women.
The report also notes that game content itself may be a barrier to building a fully inclusive college esports community, since some people object to games that depict violence or to characters that “tend toward hyper sexualization or racial stereotyping.”
At Chapel Hill, “we want to be able to proactively facilitate conversations on culture and changing the dynamic in the space” being created, Riegel said.
Gamers may find themselves tackling inclusion concerns more visibly than they used to. At some institutions, the rise of college esports has helped gamers attain a higher status in the broader campus community.
The centrality of the football stadium or basketball arena at many colleges underscores the extent to which campus life has traditionally revolved around those activities. School pride—and rivalries—are often rooted in sports. To students more interested in video games than athletics, a campus esports arena decorated in school colors can feel similarly legitimizing, even if it doesn’t host a varsity-level squad (yet).
The space is a signal that gamers, too, belong.
“If you love football growing up, you have a team you can root for. We’re just now getting a video game team,” Jamison said during the panel. “It’s sort of righting a wrong.”
Getting back to those dollar signs, colleges may find that prioritizing building esports community—and facilities—can also pay off in student recruitment efforts. The Illinois State University gaming studio has helped the institution attract high schooler gamers, says Dawn Pote, executive director of campus recreation.
“Some students have already connected with clubs in Discord servers and come to campus with an established community. That’s priceless,” she says. “To celebrate what they do on our campus is very beneficial for us.”