Colleges and Esports Through the Prism of Rocket League

Collegiate Esports Through the Prism of Rocket League
Collegiate Esports Through the Prism of Rocket League / Photo Courtesy of Psyonix

In the ever-expanding world of esports, a new level of competition has emerged. Collegiate esports has found its own scene and now colleges across the nation, are starting to take an interest. 

Just like professional esports, collegiate esports cover various games. At the collegiate level, one of the most popular, and growing games is Rocket League. Esports Manager of Product at Psyonix, Cory Lanier says that there are roughly 450 schools involved in Collegiate Rocket League (CRL). On top of that, Lanier mentioned that the CRL Championship in 2020 had about 70 thousand viewers on Twitch. President of the Electronic Gaming Federation (EGF), Tyler Schrodt, mentioned that there are roughly 200 schools with esports programs. The exact number is difficult to estimate for a few reasons. Schrodt says that it's mostly due to, "not a lot of standardization." Not only do different games have different formats, but there are various leagues for each game.

For example, the EGF and the CRL run their Rocket League leagues differently. Schrodt said, "The EGF is a varsity league." Essentially, a varsity league is a formal league with a set schedule. Schools in the league have esports programs that assist their students and help them to compete in the league. In order for a team to join the EGF, "the university has to support it" Schrodt says. What that means is that a team must have the backing of their school in order to join the EGF. Schrodt said that the EGF works with the schools to help them create the format of the league. The schools in the EGF decide which games they wish to compete in. For example, one school may compete in Rocket League, while another school may only compete in League of Legends or Overwatch. By working with the schools, Schrodt and the rest of the EGF can set up a schedule. Another point that was stressed was that every game scheduled was to be on stream, on the official EGF Twitch channel.

The CRL operates slightly differently. Lanier described the CRL as more of a "grass-roots approach." In the CRL, students don't need a program to compete. The players simply find their teams themselves in their own school and sign up under their school's name. This makes it easier for players to sign up and play competitively. However, the players are on their own in terms of setup and coaching. League managers talk with the players directly instead of with a coach or a program manager in order to coordinate schedules. There are qualifying tournaments to enter the CRL. Once a team has qualified, their matches will be streamed on Twitch.

How These Leagues Started

One of the more interesting aspects of collegiate esports is how they became so popular. Collegiate esports isn't new to the world of esports. Schrodt said there were video game tournaments back in the early 2000’s that he used to compete in and coordinate. Schrodt did mention, "No one called it esports back then." Schrodt started running tournaments at RIT while working with Residence Life and Student Conduct. As time went on, the tournaments "became more approachable" Schrodt noted. Slowly these tournaments grew via "word of mouth" and schools from outside of the region wanted to take part. Eventually, Schrodt said the tournaments, "weren't about the tournaments anymore." Participants were no longer players who attended different colleges. Now, the participants were representing their schools themselves. Schrodt said, “over the last five years we've evolved the company from what was just a collegiate grassroots focused tournament into a formalized league.”

Lanier was tasked with starting the CRL back in 2017. He mentioned how the CRL had "humble beginnings” and how the league is an “open system.” Over the past few years, more and more teams signed up for the CRL qualifiers. Inclusion was an important aspect that Lanier mentioned about the growth of not only the CRL, but the professional scene as well. Specifically, Lanier talked about the decision to make Rocket League a free-to-play game. By making the game free to play, anyone with a system that could run the game could now compete. On top of that, schools were not limited to one team entry. Multiple teams from the same school could enter into qualifying tournaments.

The Collegiate View

Why would colleges start buying into esports? One specific reason was for future students. Nate Kruger, Graduate Student Manager at Canisius College, mentioned that esports could be used as a "recruitment tool" for prospective students. Kruger mentioned that the esports program at Canisius was built with, "A massive push from the athletic department." Canisius has even built their very own esports lab on their campus, where players can practice their games and compete with other students. The lab was also viewable to high school students when touring the campus. While Canisius is not the first to build an esports lab, they are one of the latest schools to add an esports lab to their campus.

I asked Michael Miller, a student at Canisius College and Rocket League competitor in the EGF, what students get out of competing in esports leagues. He said that it varies per person, “For some people, it’s something that breathes new life into a game since they have a real reason to play it now, that was my case.” He continued by saying, “My most exciting games in Rocket League used to be my rank-up games, now it’s every week when I play in EGF.” 

Lanier mentioned that another reason schools invested in esports was to build school spirit. Lanier said that something CRL has built, "is a sense of community." As an example of community, Lanier mentioned the 2019 CRL National Championship. The 2019 Finals tournament was the last LAN event held by the CRL. The tournament took place in November of 2019 in Arlington, Texas, and had plenty of fans present. "That's all about students loving their school," exclaimed Lanier.
On top of that, thousands of Rocket League fans watched the finals online on the Rocket League official Twitch channel. The same channel that hosts the professional Rocket League league.

Lanier also listed multiple examples of schools with esports programs that had community support. Specifically, Lanier mentioned Akron and how their program has, "built out and fully embraced esports as a school." Akron's esports program is famous, especially in the Rocket League community. Their Rocket League team is three-time National Champions. This year, the Akron Rocket League team lost in the Championship round to Northwood.

Akron is one of the hundreds of schools that have an esports program. In fact, Akron and Northwood are just two examples of many schools that offer esports scholarships. Lanier also mentioned the University of North Texas (UNT) as another example of a school embracing esports.

With schools adding esports programs and scholarships, one might think that the NCAA would get involved. However, that is not the case. According to a USA Today article, the NCAA did hold a conference about the possibility of governing esports back in April of 2019. However, they decided against doing so, listing Title IX as one of many reasons.

Problems the Leagues Face

Collegiate esports, however, doesn't always run as smoothly as one would think. Like any league, there are difficulties for both the schools involved and the leagues themselves. Schrodt made mention, "There's so much experimentation right now." With so many different ways of running a league, there is no surefire way to say what works best. Schrodt made a comparison between esports and traditional sports. Saying that, "Esports is a condensed history." Essentially, leagues like the EGF are trying to recreate what the NCAA has done for traditional sports in the past decade, in just a few years.

For the CRL, Lanier said, "the hardest thing has to be just the sheer scale of everything and the aspirations behind the program." He continued by saying, "We firmly believe that we have one of the best collegiate esports in all of gaming. I think it’s really just trying to find what the best short-term moves for us are and then also building out toward our larger aspirations with the program as we go into the future."

Collegiate esports programs have also had their recent struggles. Kruger mentioned that the coronavirus has had a huge impact on his ability to recruit. Social distancing restrictions meant that Kruger couldn't run a recruitment event on campus. Instead, Kruger had to resort to schoolwide emails. On top of that, the esports lab on campus couldn't be shown to prospective students because tours have, for the time being, been shut down.

Coaching and scheduling have also been difficult since the start of the pandemic. According to Kruger, Canisius has roughly 30-40 people in the esports program across all of their games. Despite so many participants, Kruger said, "I've never been able to put my face in front of everyone in the program." On top of that, the esports lab on campus has had minimal use. Kruger mentioned how now only six members can be in the room at a time. Before and after use, there's an in-depth cleaning of the lab. Kruger also noted that a lot of communication with teams has happened over online outlets such as Discord.

A large focus of these leagues is the players themselves. When I asked what the students get out of these programs and leagues, the answers were overwhelmingly positive. Kruger mentioned that the Canisius esports program serves the same purpose as the school's club sports. On top of that, Kruger said it gave the players, "Something to focus on and train for. Something to stay invested in."   Lanier said that the CRL is a platform that, "gives students a place where they can earn that scholarship." In terms of opportunities, Schrodt said, "the easiest way to prepare for the industry is to do it."

Collegiate esports is not a perfect system, but it's a system in place that works. Although Rocket League may be going on six years old, these leagues are still fairly new. They're all still learning and expanding. Schrodt says that the EGF is, "constantly changing how we do stuff." Lanier expressed how excited he was for the future of CRL. "There's so much room to grow, it really feels like the first inning."