USC Aiken is growing its ability to tap into a billion-dollar sports industry with over 300 million fans – and it's not played on a field or in a stadium.
The university opened its new eSports (electronic sports) facility in one of its on-campus residence halls Monday. The eSports Gaming Center comprises 1,000 square feet of space packed with 24 new computers and equipment available for use for the university's eSports League of Legends team (which took home the 2019 Peach Belt Conference Championship) or for students who just want to blow off some steam at the end of a long day of classes.
"This space itself is just kind of the opportunity for the students who usually spend a lot of time playing together virtually to be in the same space, to enjoy their hobby together and to have a place they can call home on campus," said Dr. David Morris, eSports coordinator at USCA. "It's also a chance for new people on campus to come together and experience eSports and experience video games who in the past maybe haven't had the opportunity to do so."
Video game competition has come a long way since the days of "Space Invaders." Nine out of every 10 U.S. teenagers play video games on some electronic platform, according to the Pew Research Center, as well as 43% of adults.
The explosive growth of the industry has been helped along by the popularity of streaming services such as YouTube and Twitch.
International competitions between eSports teams are televised in countries across the world, in which professional eSports players compete for multi-million dollar prize pools. Some professional gamers make even more money as influencers on streaming platforms through endorsements, fees and sponsorships.
USCA Chancellor Dr. Sandra Jordan said the industry's rising popularity among young people and it's projected economic growth – about $1.8 billion – is part of why universities across the country are getting involved.
"ESports has become an economic reality," Jordan said. "There are big changes in just a short number of years. Goldman Sachs estimates that (by 2022) the eSports industry will have 300 million viewers, which puts them on par with the NFL."
Jordan said USCA's eSports club had over 100 students sign up the first day it was created. She also said the increasing evidence of the industry's influence on college campuses – including the fact that over 200 U.S. colleges now offer scholarships to elite eSports players – and the fact that cities like Atlanta are building eSports stadiums is just the "tip of the iceberg."
The $285,000 gaming center will be open 24 hours to students and the university's two competitive eSports teams.
"Regarding the gaming center, I personally feel so blessed to be at a university that is willing to put its students' needs and interests first, even when those interests are in a field so new to the administration," said Samuel Boyd, USCA student body president and League of Legends team captain. "This lab will help USCA consistently field a top-notch team with some real team spirit and provide students who would've never had that opportunity the chance to experience all the benefits of collegiate competition.
"Every single person involved in this process has been so helpful and supportive, and that has created an energy around the program that will benefit the players and our competitions for years to come," Boyd said.