Understanding the Esports and Video Game Ecosystem

With the help of digital platforms like Twitch’s interactive live-streaming service, gaming has gone from a hobby to a sport, attracting spectator communities worldwide. According to TwitchTracker, the average viewership on Twitch jumped from 1.4 million pre-pandemic in February 2020 to 2.5 million in April 2020 and has grown ever since. At its maximum viewership in June 2022, Twitch amassed an audience of 6.6 million.

Gaming has long been a part of college students’ lives. Back in 2003, the Pew Research Center reported that 70% of students played computer, video, or online games. Today, electronic sports (esports), defined by Donna Walters, executive director of College Esports, as “multiplayer video games played competitively, for spectators,” are enhancing the college experience, helping students connect, engage, and find support.

On Wednesday, August 2, ACUI hosted a foundational discussion on esports presented by Walters, who leads the 501c3 nonprofit College Esports, which is dedicated to leveraging the power of esports and video games to advance workforce development for communities globally. 

Esports borrows from multiple fields and business models, including sports entertainment, entrepreneurship, and grassroots community-building; importantly, enthusiasts value partnership and loyalty over sponsorship and sales. The community comprises a wide range of students, including underrepresented groups, neurodiverse students, the gaming community, and often those who don’t feel like they fit into Greek life, athletics, or other mainstream campus communities.

“In the same way that millions of people a year watch the Super Bowl, Esports attracts a dedicated and passionate fan base,” Walters said. When building and developing an esports program, Walters said it is vital to cater to diverse populations of gamers. Popular genres include first-person shooter (FPS) games, battle royales, sports games, card games, auto chess, multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs), and fighting games, each attracting unique crowds.

Stanford University held the world’s first esports tournament, “Intergalactic Spacewar! Olympics,” in 1972. “Today, we’re seeing an explosion of collegiate teams, scholastic programming, and brands entering the space,” Waters said.

Popular tournaments include the American Video Game League’s Intel Inspires, the Collegiate Sports Management Group (CECC), the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Esports, the National Association for Collegiate Esports (NAC Esports), the Riot Scholastic Association of America (RSAA) and the Red Bull Campus Clutch.

Walters said the scholastic space esports space is thriving because it extends far beyond “just playing video games.” Schools that integrate the competitive aspect of the ecosystem with four cornerstones of esports in education — competition, community, education and careers, and entertainment — are particularly successful.

Friendly competition, according to College Esports, enhances sportsmanship and team-building, improves attention, and challenges students to work harder. The entertainment aspect of esports further increases engagement and motivation. In terms of community, esports help students build relationships, find a sense of belonging, and expand professional and social networks.

Finally, esports provide students with hands-on opportunities to discover new career paths while tailoring programming to your university’s unique goals and study body. Esports and video game career paths include health and wellness (think sports psychology), business (sales and advertisement), competition (performance management), entertainment (broadcast management), media (graphic design), event management (construction and set design), and IT (support and cyber security), among many others.

In addition to providing hands-on career experimentation, a dedicated space or gaming center on campus bridges the digital divide for the underprivileged. Precisely where that space is located often depends on who’s championing the initiative and has available funding. Walters said it’s important to reach out and reduce campus silos if the initiative is housed in the university union.

“Start combining your efforts and utilizing the resources that already exist on your campus,” she said. “Are you making connections with different departments on your campus? Are you meeting with the campus entrepreneurial center or business department to provide internships or student assistant positions for hosting events or tournaments? Are you reaching out to the athletics department to find the best way to recruit?”

Walters also said it’s OK to start small with a focus on scalability.

“I focus on hands-on student learning experiences, first and foremost, because that reduces the college-to-career gap,” she said, adding that these opportunities allow students to discover what they do and do not enjoy through real-world experience.

“They might say, ‘Oh, I thought I wanted to be a community manager, but I don’t like working with people as much as I thought I did.’ In that case, you just saved them a few years of work experience,” Walters said.

For additional esports resources, visit the Coalition of Parents in Esports (COPE), the*gamehersAbleGamers, the Esports and Health Performance Institute (EHPI), and Gameplan. Contact Donna Walters, executive director of College Esports, at info@collegeesports.gg and linkedin.com/in/donnawalters527.


  • Christine Preusler

    Christine Preusler, Managing Editor at The Wyman Company in Gainesville, Florida, writes The Lead for ACUI's biweekly newsletter, The Bulletin. Christine uses more than 15 years of experience in publication management and a master’s in mass communications from the University of Florida to highlight the latest industry news and create thought-provoking content. Contact her via email (cpreusler@thewymancompany.com) with story ideas and announcements you'd like to see in the newsletter.