With approximately 140 universities offering formalized esports programs today (not to mention the scholarships that have followed), the collegiate esports industry is gaining some serious traction. And with that, new event competitions and support structures for the demo are being formed. Take ESPN’s creation of the first College Esports Championship in March, and recently, Riot Games, publisher of League of Legends, formed the Riot Scholastic Association of America (RSAA), a governing body for Riot’s college and high school esports activity. Among its goals are to develop a more inclusive student community and provide continued support for scholastic esports.
We spoke with Kurt Melcher, executive director of esports at Intersport, who serves on RSAA’s and Esports Business Summit’s advisory boards, about the role collegiate and high school esports plays in the industry’s growth, promoting inclusivity and brand sponsorship.
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Event Marketer: What role have you played in the collegiate esports ecosystem?
Kurt Melcher: In 2014, as an athletic director at [Robert Morris] University, I ideated a way to bring esports to our athletic department, onboarding it as a full sport and providing support to it the same way as our baseball, basketball and football team would have. We built a facility, hired a full staff and provided scholarships for 35 of the best student League of Legends players around the world. Now in 2019, there are 140 universities that have formalized esports programs at their schools and are providing support and scholarship for a variety of different titles.
EM: How is collegiate esports changing the industry?
KM: I think higher education, all up, can be really impactful for the industry. From high school to college—and we’re seeing the college side formalize and organize a little bit faster than the high school space, but I think that will trickle down—the impact will provide opportunities for students that are passionate about games to be able to continue playing and grow as a player in specific titles. Now I’m sure a lot of players have pro aspirations, but I don’t think that’s the end goal [of collegiate esports]. The end goal is to provide the educational opportunities for those students, and matching a passion point of theirs to help them grow to be positive, functional members of society.
We’ve left this segment, this student demographic, in the dark for a long time. Providing relevant opportunities will help grow the industry, because then you’re going to have a better professional, and that will then filter in a number of different ways in the industry. Esports is just the medium to help grow that student. So, if they graduate from university and say they played Overwatch on a scholarship for four years and they’re passionate about the industry, maybe [going] pro as a player isn’t their way, but maybe they can join a team and be involved in either coaching or administrating the team. Maybe if they graduate with a marketing degree or sports management, they could work at Blizzard on the Overwatch League. There’s a variety of different ways, as this industry grows at a massive scale, that I think we should, as educators, prepare the students as best we can to be functional elements within the industry.
EM: So, it’s about offering them career advice within the esports field, because that’s never existed before.
KM: Right. It helps support the industry but it also helps provide a maturation process for the industry. From ages 18 to 21 are really important developmental years for students. And up until just a couple of years ago, there wasn’t a construct for someone that was passionate about esports or competitive video games other than, say, going into game design or trying a sports management set of courses. Addressing esports and video games in core curricular opportunities, and matching with the competitive elements of play in an athletic construct, will bolster and provide stability to esports all up.
EM: How do you see brand partnerships shaping up?
KM: I see brand sponsorship becoming more integrated. What we have seen in the beginning is a brand saying well, okay, we sort of get this, let me just put our logo on a jersey or on a website and see what happens. But I think for it to be impactful and relevant for esports, deeper integrations are more meaningful. So, creating custom content and thinking outside of the box of traditional spots and dots are what we’ll see in the longer term for more traditional non-endemic brands.
EM: Do you have any thoughts on how the industry could embrace diversity on a broader scale?
KM: This is where the higher ed platform for esports can be really impactful to the space. Because, to your point, everyone in the industry recognizes that diversity is problematic for esports as it exists right now. And from pro all the way down, everyone says, “we identify this problem, we really want to fix it,” but there’s no tools or levers available to do so other than the will and the want. So, I think creating those tool sets in the educational realm, where you will have administrators and adults in the room that are able to carry out those tools and levers and implement them, will be the space that can really potentially engender a lot of positive change in inclusion and diversity and gender equality in esports. It’ll never happen if we just allow it to happen on its own. In online environments it’s really difficult to try to foster positive change. The education space is where that can be impactful.
EM: What game are you either playing or most interested in right now?
KM: There’s a small game called Enter the Gungeon which I’ve been completely obsessed with and can’t leave. And there’s an update out today, so it will probably just further my time suck into that game. It’s so hard, but it’s so great. It’s not an esport title or anything, but it’s from this great small publisher. It’s taken up a large share of my life.