To attract more men, the College of Charleston turns to Twitch

Joel Dettweiler, who will be a computer science student at the College of Charleston next year watches Twitch.tv, a live-streaming video-gaming website. The College of Charleston has been advertising on the popular gaming site as a way to recruit more male students. Dettweiler is part of the Colleges Game 101 club that meets on Saturday nights to watch games on Twitch and play video games.

At 1:28 p.m. this past Tuesday, 121,866 people tuned in to Twitch.tv to watch hundreds of other people play “League of Legends” live, and Joel Dettweiler was one of them.

For the uninitiated, Twitch is a live-streaming website that allows users to broadcast their game play while viewers watch, chat, cheer, heckle and even reward the gamers with money in real time. The site draws more than 100 million unique viewers each month. And “League of Legends” is its most popular game.

In a College of Charleston computer science lab on the third floor of Harbor Walk East, Dettweiler watched — entranced — one of three flat-screen TVs mounted to the walls. Dettweiler, a lanky 21-year-old with shoulder-swept hair, estimates he watches live streams on Twitch for about an hour each day.

“There’s none of the stress of winning,” he said, explaining the appeal. “But there’s a story playing out and I get to watch that, and it’s different every time because that’s the way the game is designed. It’s not going to run out of interest for me.”

Dettweiler will enter his senior year at the college next year. And he has all the attributes of the type of student the college wants to attract. He’s smart (he’s a computer science major). He’s from out of state (his parents are missionaries in Nigeria). He wants to better the world (he’s interning this summer with a church youth program). He’s also a he.

The College of Charleston has long been known for its lopsided gender makeup. Sixty-four percent of its student population are women — a number that’s barely budged since the 1980s. In recent years, the college has tried a host of different strategies to attract more male candidates, like emphasizing intramural sports in its targeted email campaigns or appealing to prospective applicants’ sense of humor. One quirky marketing video from April, for instance, features the disembodied voice of a Clyde the Cougar statue offering wary students irreverent advice.

Buying ads on Twitch was the college’s latest idea, making C of C the first major public university to market itself on the website.

“You always want the most diverse class that you can get, whether it’s ethnic or gender-based, because it creates a stimulating environment for learning,” said Jimmie Foster, the assistant vice president for admissions and enrollment management. “If you’re not creative, you’re missing opportunities to reach out to male students.”

The College of Charleston didn’t admit women until 1917, more than a century after the first classes began. Nowadays, the college’s female-to-male ratio — almost two to one — is the stuff of legends. The guys at the website BroBible — “the ultimate destination for Bros” — cite the ratio as the No. 1 reason to visit the Holy City. The editors of Cosmopolitan, meanwhile, deemed College of Charleston the fifth “worst” university to meet single guys. When Dettweiler and his friends first arrived at the college’s picturesque campus, there was a running gag between them that “all the boys came here because of the girls.”

Since 1979, the number of women enrolled in American colleges has outpaced the number of men. Next fall, the National Center for Education Statistics projects that women will make up more than 57 percent of students at postsecondary institutions. As for why this gap exists, researchers point to increased incentives for women to go to college, the rise of feminism, development of the birth control pill and behavioral differences that allow girls to perform better in school than boys.

One reason why the gender imbalance is more pronounced at the College of Charleston may be the school’s academic offerings, Foster said. The college doesn’t have an engineering program, which typically skews male.

“There is a problem around the country with getting males to go to college and getting them to go to liberal arts colleges,” said Marcia White, C of C’s senior director of marketing for academics and admissions. “Obviously, there’s a lot of competition for those fellows.”

White and her team have long been ruminating on different tactics to appeal to prospective male college students. Using Twitch, she said, stemmed from her observations of her two adult sons, who are both avid gamers. One day, she noticed that they were playing with people from all over the world, even brushing up on their foreign language skills when they chatted with other players. The “socialness“ of online gaming intrigued her and she wondered how she could tap into the community.

Sometime last fall, on the heels of Amazon’s $970 million acquisition of Twitch, she mentioned her fascination to a colleague, who told her about the site. In her research, White came across a study called “The New Face of Gamers,” commissioned by Twitch, that claimed to debunk unflattering stereotypes of gamers as “glassy-eyed addicts or isolated automatons.”

The study, conducted by leading millennial expert Neil Howe, found that gamers self-identify as more social and optimistic, better educated and closer to their families than non-gamers do. They tend to view themselves as natural leaders, more creative than most people and socially conscious, too. From a college admissions point of view, they looked like excellent applicants. And most of them — at least 92 percent of those logging onto Twitch, according to Quantcast — are male.

That makes Twitch “an ideal platform for colleges to embrace,” Anthony Danzi, senior vice president of sales at Twitch, said in a statement to The Post and Courier. Yet besides the College of Charleston, only two for-profit colleges, University of Advanced Technology and ECPI University, have advertised on the site.

“Since there are currently a lot of events broadcast on Twitch by campus gamers across the country, we are already witnessing the broader convergence of academia and gaming,” Danzi said.

The College of Charleston piloted a two-week advertising campaign on Twitch at the beginning of last month. The video ads feature interviews with two alums: 1999 graduate Hunter Via, a video editor for popular TV shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Sons of Anarchy,” and 1998 graduate Nafees Bin Zafar, a visual effects artist for DreamWorks, who won two Scientific and Technical Academy Awards for his work in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” among others.

And the metrics weren’t bad. At the end of the two-week experiment, according to White, the ads brought between 3,100 and 3,500 users to C of C’s website. “These would be people we’re guessing didn’t have any prior knowledge to the College of Charleston, and now they do,” she said. “That’s a really good number for that short period of time.”

The college won’t know the return on investment of its Twitch ads until officials calculate incoming classes’ application and enrollment data. But based on the success of their spring campaign, White says her team will probably run more Twitch ads next year.

Of course, if the college’s Twitch ads wind up attracting more male computer science majors like Dettweiler, they won’t do anything to solve the gender imbalance in his classes, where the problem lies in the other direction.

“I will say, the computer science department is sort of in a bubble,” he said. “In your classes and when you hang out in the lab, you always see the same people.” Men.

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.