DEKALB — In the middle of February this year, a few weeks into the spring semester, Northern Illinois University’s varsity Overwatch team overmatches Northern Kentucky University — a shining effort that marks the team’s first victory of the season. It’s their first season playing at the new NIU esports arena, where varsity players compete in the heart of the campus’s historic Altgeld Hall.
Listen to this story here.
Banners of the games they play fly from the rafters. The walls are adorned with posters of the 14 colleges they compete against in the Collegiate Esports Conference. One of their conference rivals, Miami University, was just ranked as the top esports program in the nation.
Below the banners, rows of PCs line the inside of the arena where varsity gamers hone their craft and students hang out and play casually with friends.
Just a few years ago, there were only a few collegiate esports programs in the United States. Now there are nearly 200.
Northern Illinois University jumped into esports in 2018 and officially launched its first varsity squads a year later. This week, the university announced it will be awarding its first-ever esports scholarships for the upcoming school year.
Conner Vagle is the director of esports at NIU.
“It’s one $1,000 scholarship for this upcoming school year, and then two $1,000 scholarships [the next year], increasing to five $1,000 scholarships five years from now,” he said. “You don’t have to be part of the varsity program. You don’t have to be a member of the club. Anybody that is interested in gaming, it’s open for them.”
The scholarship is part of a collaboration with Dr. Levi Harrison, known as the esports and gaming doctor. Harrison was introduced to NIU’s program when he was a guest speaker at the university’s esports career lecture series, where they bring in esports and gaming professionals to talk about how they got into the industry. S
Northern Illinois esports supporters are also crowdfunding donations to give $500 scholarships to each varsity gamer.
The scholarships are a big deal for students both looking for financial aid and further legitimacy for the university’s esports program. Jackson Rich is a member of NIU’s varsity Overwatch team. He told his head coach Alex Kramer about how important esports scholarships are in a Youtube conversation this spring.
“We all know college is pricey, so scholarships would help alleviate that,” said the NIU Overwatch player. “But also it would put the esports program in the same echelon of athletics. To have that varsity title and really put it on a pedestal.”
Rich also says it puts NIU on the same playing field as other colleges already offering scholarships.
The esports landscape has exploded in popularity over the past few years, powered by newer games like Overwatch, Rocket League & Valorant, and aided by blossoming online streaming communities like Twitch and Discord.
Early in the pandemic, NIU moved all of its esports events online. Even though they couldn’t keep building the on-campus community, it accelerated the program’s digital reach.
“We saw growth in our Discord from, I want to say it was about 300 people pre-pandemic, to now we’re at about 900 people,” he said.
But now that esports is back in-person, Vagle hopes the new arena helps them build their community. In just its first semester open, he says around 2,500 students visited the esports arena. Along with varsity esports, they offer a student-run club and a newer club called “Gaming For All,” aimed toward women and traditionally marginalized groups who haven’t always had supportive spaces in gaming communities.
If students really want to get involved with gaming on-campus, Vagle says they can minor in Esports Industry Professions as part of the college of education. The program even has a “special interest community.”
“Any student who is interested in eSports or gaming,” he said, “can actually live in a special wing of one of the residence halls with people that share that same interest and do special activities, all sorts of fun stuff like that.”
Conner Vagle says the new scholarships aren’t the only piece of the university’s partnership with the “esports Doctor” Levi Harrison. This fall, 100 NIU students will help beta test Harrison’s Fierce Gamer app. It’s marketed as a health and wellness app specifically created for gamers.
But the scholarships are a crucial part of proving to prospective students that esports doesn’t just have to be a hobby, it can be a viable path to college — and maybe even a career.