Esports programs at colleges across the country are growing because of their ability to attract and engage students — just like traditional sports.
But higher education caters to all types of students, and the gaming community isn’t exactly known as a bastion of inclusivity (remember Gamergate?). How can colleges create esports programs where everyone feels they can join?
Michael Cassins of the University of Montana has a solution. As the university’s director of esports, he founded the program not with the goal of winning a championship but based on the ideals of diversity, equality, and inclusion.
“A lot of esports teams — I don’t get them even a bit — are very competitive. I’m not against winning, I don’t necessarily care,” says Cassins, who is also an assistant professor of games and interactive media. They win the championship, but I’m more interested in what they do. What can we do to help you during this time in life? “
The truth is that very few of its 250 active players will ever become professional players. But in the way Cassins sees it, they can all benefit socially and academically from the societal aspect of the esports program.
To hear his students say it, the strategy works.
Building an inclusive community
In interviews with 15 representatives of team esports programs published this summer, EDUCAUSE found that higher education leaders agreed that the best way to promote inclusion was to confront toxic gaming behavior head-on.
At the University of Montana, esports player and fine arts student Canyon Hardy says coaches and staff have made it clear that any harassment will result in students being expelled from the program. This is a departure from the gaming environments that Hardy, who uses their pronouns, used before joining the League team in Overwatch, a team-based shooter.
“The Overwatch community isn’t great. I get misleading all the time when I play with Randos and [told] Sexist things like, “Girls shouldn’t be allowed to play this game,” says Hardy.
It’s not the case at university, they added: “Personally, I feel very safe. I can’t speak for every transgender person on the show, but there is a lot of saying ‘we won’t kick you out or tolerate hate’.”
Cassens’ approach to esports is based on a “radical welcome” where students feel comfortable participating regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. Part of that includes growing teams that don’t rely on first-person shooter games, which he says don’t always appeal to women. When the program created Team Tetris, five women joined immediately.
“The woman who was the captain was routinely hitting people with hundreds of thousands of points,” Cassins says. “It’s about meeting players wherever they are and trying to make them realize, ‘What are your needs, and how can we meet those needs?’ “
The university’s esports teams are also removing the financial barrier students face in purchasing expensive gaming equipment that is in demand at a competitive level. Cassins says cost is a common obstacle for teams that play at club level.
“If you don’t have to worry and you can just come and play, that also creates a feeling of, ‘I can be a part of this too,'” he says.
Hardy, who has started coaching other Overwatch players, says one of the best parts of being on the team is hanging out after a workout. Students spend Thanksgiving and Christmas together, and even quiet players are out of their shells.
“We’re all good friends now, and that’s the biggest thing we’ve all gotten out of the show,” Hardy says. “Having a place where we can all gather and have fun together.”
As in traditional team sports, students on the junior and collegiate esports teams at Cassins have to keep up with their scores if they want to play. When the staff tried to create a formal tutorial for the colleagues, the students said there was no need.
“They just help each other out. When we were all at home, they were still supportive of each other online, says Cassins.
When it comes to return on investment, according to EDUCAUSE research, schools report that esports programs give students opportunities for social and leadership growth. For universities, some have found that high school students ask about the esports team by name during the application process.
Tessa Johnson, a sophomore studying business, says she spoke to Cassins about the esports program before she enrolled at the University of Montana. As a League of Legends player, she transferred to the League team during her second semester.
“I think it made me more confident in myself. In a game like the league, you can’t make calls like, ‘I think maybe we can do that, but I don’t know,'” Johnson says, “’cause it’s going to fall apart.”
There is another benefit of having her on the team: It is a great motivator for her to do well in the classroom, even when the semester gets tough.
“Sometimes she’s like, ‘I don’t know if I’d like to do this, but all my friends play at this. Johnson says. “This is where I find a lot of happiness, so it’s a huge incentive to stay engaged and get good grades.”
Cassins says he’s noticed that esports program leaders think more about diversity, which is an encouraging trend. He doesn’t want any student to feel the code, but he says having an inclusive mindset can bring you a lot.
“If we walk away from losing the win and think more that ‘everyone will win if we just open the door,’ what is the greatest thing there is?” Cassins says. “There’s a lot more to life than, I’ve won an X championship against someone.”