The Revolution I Missed

A favorite consultant from my risk management days recently participated in a streamed presentation on esports (video gaming to those who don’t believe sitting in a chair thumbing a console for hours constitutes a sport). I enjoy reminders that I don’t have to worry about emerging student risks anymore, so I watched.

I haven’t played a video game since Pong and cant tell an Xbox from a PlayStation. But the kids these days have grown up gaming, and participation has increased further since the pandemic began, with sales booming an estimated 20%. If true, that makes video gaming a 75% larger industry than movies — a worldwide entertainment revolution.

So it must surprise only old folks like me that esports have become a force on college and university campuses. Students, along with some faculty, staff, and outsiders, including minors, are playing on-line together, many of them competitively — hence the term e (for electronic) sports. Neither the federal government nor the NCAA classify video gaming as an athletic competition, so esports are exempt from rules applying to intercollegiate athletics. That makes them vulnerable to a host of risks, the ugliest being Gamergate-style harassment; it’s all fun until the lawyer for a 14 year-old girl demands damages because one of your students called her a misogynist slur during a session of Mortal Kombat.

At that point, how the higher ed institution proceeds depends on its relationship to the esports team and student. The more involvement the administration has, the more it has an obligation to step up. At many campuses, the esports team is student-run and has little connection to the institution. But at others, the administration is all-in. The powerhouse esports team is — no, not Alabama. Not Ohio State. Not even UC Berkeley, whose signature sport is rugby. It’s Maryville, an 11,000-student private school near St. Louis. Leaders of little-known colleges and universities are coming to perceive esports as a shortcut to lifting their public profile, nurturing campus spirit, and (last but hardly least) raising money.

I was surprised to learn from the presentation that UC Irvine, Berkeley’s Orange County sibling, has also gone all-in on esports. To mitigate the Gamergate risk, Irvine developed an inclusivity plan along with an ethics code reading as follows:

  1. Harassment based on any aspect of a person’s identity will not be
  2. No “toxicity” allowed. Behaviors that create an intolerable environment
    such as bullying, threats of violence, stalking, or other forms of
    intimidation will not be tolerated.
  3. No cheating or illegal activity allowed.
  4. If you see something, say something.

Pretty good rules for life in general.

Irvine also uses its esports program for academic research and public service. I can imagine the conversation in Irvine’s inner sancta: UCLA has twentieth century entertainment scholarship locked up, so let’s specialize in twenty-first century entertainment and eat UCLA’s lunch!

(The UC campuses truly are like siblings: friends and rivals for life. I adored my colleagues at UC Santa Cruz, but early in UCSC’s existence it tried to parlay its closer proximity to Silicon Valley into an advantage over Berkeley in computer science. That didn’t happen. We at Berkeley were sympathetic, but not sorry.)

Irvine’s move makes sense. If video gaming will be the go-to entertainment medium across the planet for a generation, why not attract the best at it, synergize their expertise, and lead the field for decades? Esports attract students and young faculty into related STEM fields, reap donations from the burgeoning industry, and may even lead to a rise in US News and World Report rankings. (Currently UCLA ranks 20th, Berkeley 22nd, and Irvine 35th. Hey, we were ahead of UCLA when I left!)

So I now understand the risks — and rewards — of esports. But I still have no idea how to use a joystick.

Esports competition, Imperial College, London, 2018. (Photo: Esports News)

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.