Are gamers athletes? Study examines perceptions of students on 'esports' scholarships

Are gamers athletes? Study examines perceptions of students on 'esports' scholarships

College students have been banding together to play video games for decades. But the popularity of online gaming has grown so much that colleges are now offering athletic scholarships for "e-sports" participants. University of Kansas researchers have authored a study in which they interviewed e-sports athletes who compete at a university where they receive athletic scholarships for their gaming abilities. The study examined if the e-sports athletes do in fact consider themselves athletes, what their motivations are for taking part in the new venture and if the experience adds to their social capital like that of a more traditional college athlete.

While many a parent has worried about their child failing out of school because of too much time with a game controller in hand, are now earning scholarships specifically for their gaming skills. For the 2015-2016 school year, five schools in the U.S. were offering scholarships through their athletic departments to students to take part in e-sports. Dozens more have club teams in which students compete without scholarships. In 2015 ESPN2 first aired a show titled "Heroes of the Dorm" in which University of California-Berkeley students competed against Arizona State University in a multiplayer online battle arena game called "Heroes of the Storm."

The KU researchers interviewed 33 students on e-sports scholarships to learn more about their experiences and what the growing trend can mean for other institutions.

"They openly acknowledged there are stereotypes against e-sports athletes. Many people would say they're 'just a bunch of nerds,' but they viewed themselves as athletes," said Claire Schaeperkoetter, KU doctoral student and one of the study's authors. "They felt being part of a team contributed positively to their experience at the university."

The respondents cited their intense practice hours—as much as six hours a day, six days a week—the fact that they have coaches dedicated solely to working with them and the skills and focus required to compete at a high level as justifications for the athlete tag. The students compete, either remotely or at a shared location, against other teams in online, strategy-based games such as "Halo," "League of Legends" and "Heroes of the Storm."

The students' motivations for taking part varied, but one jumped out at the researchers. Like other star athletes, students had dreams of making a career out of their field of competition.

"One thing we were surprised by is that a lot of them said they wanted to go pro. Whether it was to continue playing and making money, or to meet people in the business and have a career in the industry. In that sense they're just like many other college athletes," said Jordan Bass, assistant professor of sport management and faculty adviser for the study.

Respondents said they also took up e-sports at the college level simply because they enjoyed gaming and wanted to continue in college, or the fact they were offered a scholarship sealed the deal.

College athletics have long been shown to help athletes and students gain on their campuses. When asked if their e-sports participation helped in that regard, respondents said they formed strong relationships with teammates but didn't necessarily gain capital outside of the team within their university. They reported not interacting much with athletes from the school's other sporting programs, but they also attributed that largely to the intense time and emotional investments required for competition. The majority did report being proud to wear their school's athletic apparel on campus and represent their team, despite not necessarily gaining capital and inclusion through their participation.

The findings can help shed light on a growing field that will likely spread to more campuses in the near future. While there are only five schools offering scholarships as of the study, there are more tournaments taking place across the country ever year, and more players are making money through online gaming and sponsorships. E-sports are not currently sanctioned by the NCAA or NAIA, but if they were, schools would face a litany of questions to answer before deciding to add a program, or how to address questions facing current programs. Not least among them, students who can now win money through tournaments would have to meet amateur eligibility guidelines.

Before that happens, e-sports have a potential to be a recruiting tool and moneymaker for schools. Those offering scholarships through their athletic department are all relatively small, tuition-driven institutions.

"I can see a lot of small colleges and universities saying, 'This is a way we can attract students who wouldn't come to our school otherwise,'" Bass said.

Understanding the students' motivations could also help administrators boost student retention while avoiding a potentially high rate of burnout, as well as boosting sponsorship and strengthening the campus community as a whole, the authors wrote.

Schaeperkoetter, Bass and Brent Oja, a sport management doctoral graduate, presented the findings last month at the College Sport Research Institute conference in Columbia, South Carolina. They conducted the study with several other KU graduate students: Jon Mays, Kyle Krueger, Sean Hyland, Ron Christian and Zach Wilkerson.

A better understanding of e-sports, which many likely would not even consider sport, can help colleges and universities guide their way through a growing cultural and financial phenomenon.

"It doesn't matter if we think e-sports are actually sports or not," Bass said. "Athletic administrators across the country have determined it is sport. It's a highly competitive activity that requires a special set of skills. If we can accept that, it can give a whole new set of people a college sporting experience."

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May 13, 2016
Hopefully e-athletes will displace the present physical sport ones. E-athletics is superior since it is gender neutral. Better there is no inherited advantages in body form--the small can compete on equal terms with the tall and muscular. No one gets concussed. In a hundred years will see the present physical sport world as bizarre as bear-baiting and other "cruel sports" .

May 13, 2016
Sitting on a chair will never replace physical exercise... When I went to college my academic life went up, because I started to practice exercise on daily basis, instead of the lack of motion period that was called "high school".

And playing video games is not gender neutral, as chess is not gender neutral either, women always lose against men playing chess and other games that requires no muscle (like billard pool). The best predictor of who is going to win a chess match is who got the highest level of testosterone... that is why I said that feminists should advocate for a more "generalized" circumcision, so they can cut the testicles too: it is time for the new "man" to roam the world, the men who will let women to win in everything.

May 13, 2016
I thought the PO loser clan would scrum this thread. I guess I was psychic and it isn't because gamers have a raft of psychological issues, compared to the general population.

Yeah, have eSports. Make it a part of disability athletics. And make sure they get therapy.

May 13, 2016
Sitting on a chair will never replace physical exercise.

What does that have to do with the issue at hand. Mental and physical fitness go hand in hand at the top levels of competition (just ask chess player)

women always lose against men playing chess and other games that requires no muscle

There are some top level female e-sports athletes (and chess players). At the very top it's really up to daily form more than to any kind of measurably superior skill who will win.

E-sports is no more (or less) pointless as a sport than curling, playing football, or figure skating. It just focuses more on mental skills than physical ones.

From a spectators POV e-sports are a lot more action packed and complex than any other type of sport out there. What the veiwer appreciates in an athlete is skill. Some spectators are just capable of appreciating simple skills (strength, speed, ...)

Others like their sports more complex and subtle (team sports, chess, e-sports).

May 13, 2016
since it seems that I do not know what I am talking about.... can anyone please give me a link of the female chess champions that played against men. I do not remember Gari Gasparov playing against any woman...

Yes, there must be magnificent women playing chess, I just never seen one playing against men.... and winning

May 14, 2016
an anyone please give me a link of the female chess champions that played against men

Try the Polgar sisters. Currently Hou Yifan is also making quite a name for herself.

May 14, 2016
It's probably a lot cheaper than sustaining physical twams, their locations and salaries. I don't mind, what we see as competitive games of entertainment is subjective. The only complaint is can think of is people harassing it as not a sport based on it being non physical. But oh well, still cheaper than sustaining teams and coaches salaries

May 14, 2016
bschott 1 / 5 (2) May 13, 2016

I thought the PO loser clan would scrum this thread.

Finally a thread where you fit in. Well done.

Bite me, budgie brain Benni!

May 16, 2016
Those women are exceptions, as you can read well when evaluate their careers.... a handful out of 3.5 billion

May 16, 2016
So? The men who play world class chess are exceptions, too. Go to any chess club in the world and you'll find women there. You'll find women in e-sports too (in some games contending for the very top).

You'll find women playing with the big dogs in any kind of cerebral sports you care to name...from Go to chess to poker to esports - and on an equal level.

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