A community college prioritizes inclusivity and diversity in its collegiate esports program--and wins big because of it.

Collegiate esports is racking up wins

A community college prioritizes inclusivity and diversity in its esports program--and wins big because of it

Key points:

A collegiate esports program is rife with opportunities to create inclusive and diverse teams of athletes who build career-ready skills. Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County Community College (MontCo) is at the forefront of these efforts, prioritizing the creation of supportive esports environments where the “e” stands for “everyone.”

MontCo’s collegiate esports program has grown from a 13-member team in 2020 to 104 participants in 2024, spanning the varsity, JV, and casual player levels.

“Varsity student athletes must be full-time, and then we open it up to part-time students on the JV and casual participant side,” explained Kelly Dunbar, MontCo’s director of athletics and campus recreation. “That way, we don’t exclude anybody. We have different, diverse student body populations [represented]. We have different areas of growth.”

And “e” truly does mean “everyone” when it comes to MontCo’s esports team.

“We continue with the ‘e is for everyone’ motto; it’s extremely diverse with all gender participants,” Dunbar said.

“The core philosophy I approach the program with is ‘e for everyone,’” said Jace Winders, esports coordinator at MontCo. “All the students participating at the top on varsity level are competing against other schools. But we also have room for anyone to come join, learn to play video games, and make friends. I tell students that however much they want to put into the program is how much they’ll get out of it.”

Program growth

MontCo’s esports program has grown by leaps and bounds, and so, too, has the demand for in-person competitions at arenas on the college’s Blue Bell and Pottstown campuses.

Known as LAN (local area network) competitions, these events involve players and competitors gathering in the same physical location and connecting their gaming equipment to compete together.

MontCo’s Rocket League team won the National Junior Collegiate Athletic Association Esports (NJCAAE) championship in December 2023 in front of an in-person and online crowd.

“Our student athletes wanted people to watch them, so we used our cultural center theater to host our national championship there in person,” Dunbar said. “People could watch our Twitch channel remotely, but also could be in person watching live, seeing how the athletes interact on stage and how they talk to teach other. You’re seeing things you wouldn’t [otherwise see]–them participate, you’re watching how they engage with their coach and with each other.”

Not just video games

It’s common knowledge that today’s students are, in many cases, preparing for jobs that don’t yet exist. When students explore esports programs in high school and college, it’s not entirely uncommon for parents and caregivers to dismiss such programs as simply playing video games with friends.

Collegiate esports is much, much more than that.

During their time in a collegiate esports program, students hone critical workplace success skills such as collaboration and communication, problem-solving, and the ability to work together as a team in often-unpredictable scenarios.

And while professional gaming is a lucrative career, students involved in collegiate esports programs find careers in broadcasting, marketing, computer science, communications and PR, and more–all because of their involvement in similar activities supporting their esports team. Many of them discover their passions and declare their majors as a direct result of their esports participation.

“When we’re recruiting or speaking at a high school and parents are involved, [we tell them] these students are not going to sit behind a computer screen for hours on end,” Dunbar said. “We’ve built in academics and physicality–in the weight room or whatever the case may be. We have athletic tutoring. We at MontCo consider our esports athletes as student athletes in that regard. They get all the benefits the student athletes get in that regard. We structure in that atmosphere where it is more of a holistic approach. We try to do our best at educating people at what that actually is. Some people have an idea of what esports is, but they don’t really know the ins and outs of it.”

“I find myself in a unique position because I have a foot in both camps,” said Winders, who was involved in his college’s esports program as a student. “I’m in a good position to explain to parents that we’re not just sitting in front of the computer playing video games the whole time. To play at a high level, your mental skills have to be sharp and you have to be physically active because you have to have good reflexes. After going through a full day of classes, you have to have laser focus and lock in on the game.”

“The biggest thing for us in general is educating people on that stigma of what esports is. Whether people agree with it or like it or not, it is a legitimate profession and sport,” Dunbar said. “When I had the privilege of watching our national championship team compete in person with people there, watching them live their dream–they were so ecstatic and so appreciative of that experience. That’s something you can’t take away.”

Looking ahead

MontCo is focused on recruiting more students to its collegiate esports program.

“How do we get students here, from an enrollment standpoint, graduate [them], and get them to their next place, whether it’s work or [another institution]?” Dunbar said. “We’re moving kids on, through our program, doing something they love. And that’s really something to be proud of because it supports our mission.”

Focusing on the benefits students gain through participation is one way to grow MontCo’s esports program.

“I like to see our esports program as a developmental program. Students come in, often at 18 years old with no experience in esports competition at all,” said Winders. “Going from just being good at a game to competing and working on a team and working with coaches teaches them life skills they’ll need not only to go on and play at different schools, but to interact with coworkers, a boss, whatever that may be. It gives them that discipline and those mental skills they need.”

For institutions looking to create or expand an academic esports program, self-awareness is the first step.

“On the institutional side, really know your institution. Really know the mission of your institution and create a program that builds off of that,” Dunbar said. “Many institutions are different. We’re an equity-driven, diversity-driven institution, so we need to make sure we establish guidelines within our esports program that reflect that. Really digging in and really looking at that, wherever you’re starting a program, is really essential.”

“If you have any sort of desire to do it at all, get involved. Speaking from experiences, it led me to my career, and I have lifelong friends from high school and college I met just from doing esports,” Winders said. “It’s such a privilege to be able to pass that knowledge down to other students.”

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Laura Ascione

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