What Happens When eSports Is The Only Game in Town?

Gabe Zaldivar

COVID-19 may rob many campuses of contact sports this year, but the global pandemic won’t steal every vestige of live sporting events.

The Collegiate StarLeague is back. It might sound like something taken from the film “The Last Starfighter,” but that’s only because it’s just as awesome.

For the uninitiated, CSL is the go-to provider of eSports competition on campuses across the nation. Now in its 11th year, it has garnered over 11,000 teams at 1,800 colleges and universities.

CSL remains a gateway for these campuses to offer eSports in a structured and compelling manner and boasts that it now has events at 65 of the Power 5 conference schools.

Instead of intramural football or hitting the softball field, thousands of students are engaging in highly competitive matches in titles such as “League of Legends” and “Fortnite.”

With Twitch streaming, there are hardly any more immersive and safer ways to engage your fellow students.

Just this year, CSL pivoted its normally in-person live event to a virtual experience when the pandemic prohibited many gatherings. 

CSL recently started registration for the school year but also unveiled its newest product, CSL Esports.

A Turnkey Option During a Trying Time

“The competition is great, but schools still don't grasp eSports,” CSL CEO Wim Stocks tells En Fuego on Sports Illustrated. “They don't know what it's going to take to develop curriculum, what it takes to run an event on campus.”

CSL eSports is hopeful to be that entry point to solve some of these issues, and it comes at an astounding time for college campuses and the nation at large.

“(CSL eSports) is all about bringing services and support for colleges to give them a turnkey approach for getting involved in eSports competition.”

It's an opportunity when many live options are being closed. The New York Times has tracked the Covid-19 since the pandemic started and discovered over 88,000 cases across 1,190 universities.

Wim StocksPhoto Credit: Collegiate StarLeague

The NCAA actually has a running tally of the sports that are on hold and those that are forging ahead, one of the myriad signs that we are in a most remarkable time.

I asked Stocks about eSports filling a void this year, not just as a substitute for intramural competition but as a means for students to again get behind their mascot and team as they would any Saturday in the fall.

“It's sad, I'm a huge college football fan, (it’s) sad not to know what's going to happen with college football,” the CEO began. “But the one thing that's certain about our leagues, we're going to have a college season. We're not relying on live events. All of our activations can happen on our online platform. It's all virtual, scales beautifully keeps people safe and distant from one another.”

With an offering like CSL eSport, some schools such as LSU, Michigan, Penn State, Texas, UCLA, USC, UNLV, Colorado, and Washington have already witnessed activations that drive eSports fervor while satisfying a real desire from students to engage with one another.

And in 2020, it’s a nice platform on which to lean. “While the other schools, conferences, sports are uncertain about what's going to happen on college campuses this fall, we will continue to run our leagues,” Stocks continued.

Rising Popularity 

Gaming in general has seen a rise in popularity in recent years but really saw an uptick in engagement as we all shuttered in place due to an unfolding global pandemic.

“New research from Nielsen found that 82% of global consumers played video games and watched video game content during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns,” a recent Nielsen study found.

There were obvious signs of gaming’s rise prior to this year. Front Office Sports reported that a whopping 100 million people watched the 2019 League of Legends World Championship last year.

There’s an opportunity lurking for colleges across the nation. Well, it’s not so much lurking as it is sitting right there in plain sight, just begging to be leveraged.

Stocks likes to say that instead of FOMO (fear of missing out), administrators are in danger of falling victim to a Cost of Missing Out.

“If you're not if not addressing eSports, you're going to be irrelevant to this demographic moving up,” he said. “Your recruiting is going to fall flat. You're going to be completely disintermediated from what these kids want in their higher education.”

Addressing Diversity

That demographic, by the way, is increasingly more female. “We've always had participation from women in our collegiate leagues,” Stocks said.

Female participation has been huge but there’s a real presence CSL is determined to address now and in the future. However, previous female gaming had been relegated to co-ed experiences.

“A light bulb went on for me and for us last year,” he said. “We just haven't been able to try to get enough women involved. Certainly not enough for my sake. I and our whole organization, we obviously want more women. Our leagues are structured to be specifically friendlier, more accessible. There's the competitive side, but there's also the social side. And we really encourage women to be involved in those leagues as well. But those are also coed.”

While having women gamers next to their male teammates will always be a part of the equation, CSL will put far more of an effort to carve out a platform very much needed.

“It smacked us between the eyes that in order to make this more accessible for women in the time we're in right now, we needed to set up dedicated women's league. So, this year, part of our makeup will be dedicated women's leagues: three different games and we’ll be including four women's leagues.”

Collegiate StarLeague is also committed to bringing more color to the gaming sphere and has exciting news on the horizon to announce, including continued work with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU).

“We have had ongoing conversations with a number of the HBCU schools; we see a big opportunity there to help support the HBCUs as they get their radar focused on eSports,” Stocks said. “We’ve actually done a number of masterclasses to help educate the administrators at those schools, as well as to help the students understand the overall realm of eSports and where they can fit in not only from a participation perspective but also from the opportunities that exist within the business of eSports for careers.”

A 2019 New York Times article highlights the issues facing minorities in the gaming industry. “Gaming is a multibillion-dollar business, and one that has remained largely white and largely male,” the Times explained.

Mitu Khandaker is a professor at New York University’s game center and tells the publication that representation is a big problem in the industry.

“If you’re a young person of color playing games, you don’t really see yourself represented,” he told the Times. “That kind of instills in you this sense that maybe I don’t really belong.”

It’s a long road but the tools to change an inherently exclusive future are present with organizations like CSL.

Gaming remains an inextricable part of who this younger generation is and what they care about. Making it more inclusive and accessible just makes sense.

While you might not be able to suit up and engage in in-person competition as you might other years, there is definitely an avenue to let out those competitive juices and support your college this year. 

It will just be with a controller in hand.