Skip to content

Did you know that in the United States you could earn a college scholarship for playing video games? At many U.S. colleges, video games, also known as esports, are considered a varsity sport. Just like student-athletes can earn athletic scholarships to play soccer, tennis or basketball at American universities, they can also earn athletic scholarships to compete on their schools’ esports teams. Tespa, a network of collegiate esports clubs, currently has chapters in over 250 schools across the United States. The University of Utah is one of them. In 2017, the University of Utah launched its varsity esports team, becoming the first school that is recognized by U.S. News Global Education as an International-Friendly University to do so.

What is esports?

Esports is a form of competitive video gaming. Esports athletes often spend hours every day practicing their skills so that they can compete in large tournaments. Oftentimes, these tournaments are live-streamed online. The largest esports events usually have millions of viewers. Esports is quickly becoming a very lucrative market. The top esports athletes can earn millions of dollars per year in prize money, merchandise sales, and endorsement deals. In fact, the global esports market is projected to be worth approximately $1.5 billion in 2020.

Many colleges and universities have had video gaming and esports clubs for dozens of years. Historically, these have been student-run organizations with little to no recognition or support from their schools. This changed in 2014, when Robert Morris University Illinois became the first university to offer athletic scholarships to students participating in esports. Since then, more than 60 schools across the United States have officially launched varsity esports teams.

How the University of Utah’s esports team came to be

Long before the University of Utah instituted varsity esports, a strong gaming culture was developing on campus. In 2013, a group of students launched The Esports Association at the University of Utah. This group coordinated events and opportunities for gamers to meet each other and compete. The organization, which later changed its name to Crimson Gaming, began rapidly growing in size and influence.

According to AJ Dimick, the Director of Operations for the University of Utah’s esports program, “Esports is a student-driven movement.” Students at schools across the country would organize their own events, practices and tournaments without much support from administration. Essentially, it was up to the students to carve out a space for esports on college campuses.

As student gaming clubs grew in popularity, college administrators began taking note. Schools realized that by supporting their esports communities, they could attract more students to apply.

“It is a draw,” says Dimick. “Universities have embraced this on-campus culture. Frequently, if you are at a small school with enrollment under 2000 students, you can get 200–300 students who are interested who weren’t there before. Esports does attract many students.”

In April 2017, the University of Utah announced that it would officially recognize esports as a varsity sport.

Making the team

Utah’s inaugural esports team launched with 25 players. Every player on Utah’s roster is earning an athletic scholarship for competing in esports.

To determine its roster for the 2018 season, Utah held open tryouts for anyone on campus who wanted to compete in esports. Dimick says that the team wanted to give everyone who was interested in playing a chance to be evaluated. “We wanted to make a gesture to the university that this was a team that belongs to the campus, and that this was the students’ team.”

The University of Utah also actively recruits students to compete on its esports team. Esports recruitment functions similarly to recruitment in other collegiate sports. Players can contact the University of Utah to let the school know that they are interested in attending and competing, and the school follows up with more information.

“We keep an open document for people to put themselves on our radar,” says Dimick. “People that can make our team are hard to find. We rely on people to give us a heads up if they want to play, but we also recruit people who are good enough to make our team. It’s a two-way road.”

The University of Utah plans to hold tryouts for the upcoming esports season in the fall. Once again, every player who makes the team will receive a scholarship.

The University of Utah’s role in the growth of collegiate esports

The University of Utah was the first Power Five Athletic conference school to launch esports as a varsity sport. The Power Five are five of the largest, most competitive and most influential collegiate athletic conferences in the United States. The University of Utah’s varsity esports program may lead other Power Five schools to institute their own esports teams.

So far, many of the schools that have joined the collegiate esports movement have relatively small athletic programs. Only eight National College Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I schools have varsity esports teams. In fact, many of the schools with varsity esports teams do not compete in the NCAA at all; these schools instead compete in smaller associations such as the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA).

Dimick thinks that going forward, more large schools will join the movement. He believes that the success of the University of Utah’s program will convince other large universities that varsity esports teams have a place on campus. “We are a bit of a template to other schools trying to jump in as far as being positively received by the fan base and administration and how to structure it on campus,” says Dimick.

Getting a degree in games

In addition to offering students the opportunity to compete in esports, the University of Utah also offers degrees in video game–related fields. The esports team’s sponsor, the Entertainment Arts and Engineering (EAE) Program, enrolls undergraduate and graduate students in video game design courses.

The University of Utah consistently offers one of the best game design programs in the United States for both undergraduate and graduate students. The undergraduate program awards bachelor’s degrees in computer science, film and media arts, and games. The graduate program offers master’s degrees in entertainment arts and engineering with focuses in game arts, game engineering, game production, and technical arts.

Utah’s bachelor’s degree in games was the first of its kind in the United States. Last school year, over 600 undergraduate students were enrolled in Utah’s EAE Program.

“Its about the effectiveness of our students getting jobs,” says Dimick. “For the students that want to break into [the video game industry], we have the network and relationships to help them in the way that they want to do it.”

The addition of the esports team is helping the university attract more students who are interested in engineering. Approximately 70% of the students who filled out the recruitment form for the 2018 season expressed interest in STEM majors.

Learn more about the University of Utah

Are you interested in earning a scholarship to compete for the University of Utah’s esports team? Do you want to study video game design in the Entertainment Arts and Engineering Program? If so, click here to learn more about the University of Utah. Be sure to fill out the form that says “Request more information about University of Utah” if you’d like to be contacted by the university.