Most athletes who play varsity-level college sports have been training for the majority of their lives.
Tyler Chase, freshman at Northwest Christian University studying education, was 16 when he began playing a popular team-oriented online video game called Overwatch. Two years later he was offered a position on NCU’s Esports team, The Beacons, and given a scholarship to attend the university.
“I started playing Overwatch at the end of my sophomore year in high school,” Chase said. “It was my first time playing a first-person shooter game.”
NCU is currently one of 73 American universities that are a part of the National Association of Collegiate Esports, according to its website. Founded in 2016, NACE is the first and only institutional association for varsity esports. NACE allows universities to set aside funding for competitions and equipment, like NCU’s gaming arena, that features over a dozen specialized gaming computers and chairs.
“My roommate, who also plays, has a computer that is quite a bit worse than the computers in our gaming,” Chase said. “Our team would probably be at a fairly decent disadvantage without university funding.”
These disadvantages are felt by the University of Oregon’s esports team, UO Esports, who are currently represented as a club through ASUO. This club status prevents them from receiving university funding. David Gugliotti, co-president of UO Esports, says that without the funding available to varsity recognized esports teams, UO won't be able to capitalize on the $1.1 billion in total esports revenue in 2019 projected by newzoo.
“Varsity programs have dedicated space for them to practice and play in, while we are all playing spread out over campus hoping the WiFi in the dorms stays on,” Gugliotti said. “We've received $0, even as a club sport, from the school or through donor support so everything is paid for out of pocket by our players which really limits what we can do.”
Last year, UO was one of 12 universities that came together to form the Pacific Alliance of Collegiate Gamers, an organization that organizes and hosts events for numerous games, including Overwatch. The league, which only features one university-sponsored varsity team, is meant to be a stepping stone for esports clubs who hope their school will eventually support them on the same varsity level as schools like NCU.
“Much of the infrastructure has already been put in place by myself, our students and our players,” Gugliotti said. “There is so much untapped potential here that this can be a huge asset for our school and our students.”
Jimmy Stanton, a director of communications for UO athletics, said that the UO currently has no plans to start an esports team within the athletics department.
NCU was the first college in Oregon to offer esports as a varsity sport. Oregon Institute of Technology and Southwestern Oregon Community College are also a part of NACE.
Coming in as a freshman, Chase accepted a $6,500 scholarship to play for the Beacons. The total cost for Chase’s education is about $39,000 a year.
Aside from the scholarship offered to varsity esports players, Chase has also benefited from something else — a sense of community.
“It’s really nice to have the people that I'm playing with in the same room as me.” Chase said. “It gives a whole new dynamic because there's a lot of things in online gaming that you can't really see.”
Even without the varsity recognition, Gugliotti has also experienced an immense sense of community though UO Esports.
“We have our Gaming Club meetings every other week where students can come play games and make some new friends,” Gugliotti said. “Our Gaming Club is all about our community and students having fun. Whether a serious gamer or someone who plays for fun, everyone is welcome.”
However, Gugliotti notes that UO Esports has felt the loss of potential players to schools like NCU that have the resources to incentivize future students to enroll in their universities.
“We are already seeing potential UO students going to other schools who have varsity programs, and why wouldn't they?” Gugliotti said. “These schools, especially the smaller ones, are using esports as a differentiator for admissions and student recruitment.”
Before hearing about the esports program at NCU, Chase had no plans to attend the university.
“I was pretty much set on going to Lane Community College,” Chase said. “But there were a few staff members at NCU that went to my church and they were talking about playing Overwatch through the esports program. It all happened really quickly. I signed up for the school in June and was enrolled in fall term.”
Chase wants to become a high school math teacher one day, but also hopes to continue streaming his Overwatch gameplay online through Twitch, a live-streaming video platform.
“I stream usually three days a week, probably on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays most of the time because that's when I don't have classes generally,” Chase said. “It would be nice to have Twitch as something I’m doing while I’m teaching.”