College esports launches are similar to startups--they require an agile approach and innovative problem solving, along with strong leadership.

How esports led to major growth in student leadership at Cal State

College esports launches are similar to startups--they require an agile approach and innovative problem solving

In 2021, the global competitive video game market (esports) was valued at just over $1.08 billion dollars. Esports has become a popular way to promote student engagement on college campuses. However, colleges have a tremendous amount of information to learn, and with limited data on proven esports track records, schools are finding it very difficult to create sustainable and educational programming.

What makes forming new programs most challenging is that college esports programs borrow from many familiar industries simultaneously, providing a sense of false security regarding the ease and understanding of this space. Esports may look and feel like a “plug and play” approach that would require little effort and minimal need for expert guidance, but creating a successful program is a much more complicated process. It requires a deep understanding of multiple industries and the ability to connect them all into one.

College esports launches are a lot like startup up businesses. They require an agile approach and innovative problem solving. Esports matches are broadcast using the talent and technology found in the entertainment industry. Like traditional sports, esports teams compete through established rankings and coach-led player development. Community members with social media savvy drive event attendance and overall participation, provided that the members feel a sense of connection to the brand. Simply put, programs need specialists from multiple fields to work together for successful results. 

On December 15, 2020, the Cal State Esports Collective was established to address gaps in knowledge within the space and guide campus leadership towards supporting the esports community’s needs. Operations were formed using a hybrid model of student government processes, campus policies and procedures, and professional esports industry norms.

Community members include student leaders, faculty, staff, and administrators from across the 23 California State University (CSU) campuses; members from the CSU Chancellor’s Office; local, national, and global brands; and passionate gamers from schools and universities outside of the CSU system. By focusing on the needs of both higher education and professional esports spaces, all major stakeholders are represented and have a voice in the direction of initiatives.

The Cal State Esports Collective aims are: (1) To advocate for esports policies on campuses throughout California by amplifying student voices and aligning educators’ efforts with the gaming community’s needs; (2) Establish and operate a system-wide league to enhance connection between members of the 23 CSU campuses and strengthen the competitive standing of CSU esports teams during nationally held competitions; and (3) Provide professional networking opportunities and experiences to reduce the college-to-career gap through hands-on learning.

To support each of these areas and to build a foundation for sustainable programming, the Four Cornerstones of College Esports were created: Community, Competition, Education, and Entertainment.

In January 2021, the Cal State Esports Collective Executive Board was formed. The inaugural student leadership team comprises President Aaron Ale from CSUMB; Vice President of Community Sarah Dueltgen from CSU Stanislaus; Vice President of Competition Kabir Suri from CSUSB; Vice President of Education Serenity Mosqueda from CSUMB; and Vice President of Entertainment Neil Dulce from San Francisco State. Each Executive Board member is responsible for overseeing the efforts of their respective committees.

The President supports each Vice President and works with the Executive Director to ensure the vision and goals for the organization are met. Each Vice President chairs a committee of student volunteers to support each of the Four Cornerstones and work with their “squads” to create all programming and initiatives.

During the Fall 2021 semester, Suri executed a Valorant pilot tournament with his “Competition Squad,” resulting in more than 14 participating teams. Suri collaborated with Dulce and the Entertainment Committee’s “Stream Squad” to ensure game play was broadcasted on Twitch and play-by-play game commentary was performed. Both worked with Mosqueda and Dueltgen to market the pilot tournament on social media and gather insight on industry best practices. In a true collaborative and team effort, more than 20 students gained professional hands-on-learning experiences. 

Official Cal State Esports championship custom jerseys were created by first-place winners Cal Poly San Luis Obispo – Gold Team, with the help from prize sponsor and awarded to each of the five players and their head coach.

In April 2022, the CSU Chancellor’s Office and the Cal State Esports Collective launched as a first-step collaborative effort to officially support esports system-wide. Since then, a student assistant position within the CSU Chancellor’s Office has been created and further support for CSU gaming communities is being discussed. 

As part of the hands-on learning process, students are invited to attend meetings with industry partners; speak during esports and higher education engagements; organize industry events attended by university presidents and industry leaders; and are highlighted in widely distributed publications.

By hosting an annual esports tournament and allowing students the opportunity to create and organize these events under the guidance and supervision of a staff member or experienced leader, students are gaining real world experience, building up their resumes, and creating a professional portfolio. They are networking and making industry connections. Some are receiving job offers before they graduate, demonstrating that college esports can help to reduce the college-to-career gap.

By taking a “students first” approach, integrating the Four Cornerstones of College Esports into the development of the organization, and focusing on creating a welcoming, inclusive, and positive space, the Collective has achieved impressive results in 2022: 416% growth in membership; 580% increase in student leadership participation; and 15 new alumni.

Future plans include: (1) Grow the high school to college pipeline through organizations like the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF), which focus on connecting learning and play to develop workforce skills; (2) Work alongside professional development groups like the National Association of Esports Coaches and Directors (NAECAD) to enrich learning for student leaders; (3) Partner with groups aimed at supporting underrepresented communities like The*game HERS and Able Gamers; (4) Raise funds to compensate our student leaders for their time and expertise in strengthening esports throughout California and other higher education spaces.

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