Higher Ed ReWired

Esports: Changing the Game in Higher Ed

Episode Notes

About This Episode:

During the worldwide pandemic, esports programs stepped in to fill the void that social distancing created. Students in these programs had the unique opportunity to gather in virtual worlds and stay connected. The sense of belonging the programs fostered did not go unnoticed and universities began to view  esports as a remedy for student recruitment and retention.

In this episode, we will speak with the director of the National Association of Collegiate Esports, the EA Sports Association president at CSUDH, and two esports directors in the CSU system about how they’re transforming the program and how this new way of competing is providing students a reason to pursue higher education.

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Episode Transcription

[FADE IN - Super Smash Bros. sounds]

This is what I heard the first time I visited California State University Dominguez Hills pre-pandemic.

[Smash sounds continue]

Students were packed like sardines in a section of the student union, energized and passionate as they jockeyed for a turn to play Super Smash Brothers.

I turned to the student body president giving me a tour and asked, “Is this normal?”

He chuckled and said, “Are you kidding me? Literally every day.”

[Smash sounds fade]

Ruben Caputo: [00:07:37] So the game titles are League of Legends, Valorant, Overwatch.. 

This is Ruben Caputo. He’s an IT consultant and the EA Sports academic advisor and general manager at CSUDH.

Ruben: [continued] And what I love too about these game titles is that they really not only help you just, yes, grow your community and find those interest points that brings us together to actually game. But there's a lot of math and science involved in it, too.

Caputo can confirm that the wall-to-wall Smash competitions are a regular occurrence.

Ruben Caputo: [00:02:45] I'll never forget it: getting a phone call from our Office of Student Life at the lower level of our student union saying that we were creating fire hazards. We were busting out of the seams. There was no space for us and we were literally just picking walls that had outlets so that we can plug in. 

And it’s not just CSUDH. In 2020, the number of varsity esports programs in the United States doubled… from over 100 member institutions to over 200.

The question is… why?


[Higher Ed Rewired is a production of the California State University. The CSU is the largest, most diverse four-year public university system in the country, and an engine of social and economic mobility. Each episode examines exciting innovations taking place across the nation that has the potential to improve student success and to positively change the environment in which we teach, learn and discover. Each episode examines ground breaking research and exciting innovations take place across the nation that is transforming the landscape of student success.. ]

This is Higher Ed Rewired.

I’m Michael Wiafe. I’m a San Diego State University alumnus and past president of the Cal State Student Association.

In a worldwide pandemic, it’s no wonder that esports programs filled the void that in-person activities left behind. Students could more easily gather in virtual worlds… than they could at parties or concerts.

But… esports isn’t popular just because it’s remote-friendly. 

Administrators adding these programs see it as a remedy for multiple issues that colleges face — like student recruitment and retention.

In this episode I’ll talk with the director of the National Association of Collegiate Esports about the real reason varsity esports programs are growing.

I’ll chat with the EA Sports Association president at CSUDH… about how esports has given her and other students a reason to pursue higher education.

And I’ll speak with two esports directors in the CSU system about how they’re transforming esports from a club… to a curriculum.


Act 1 - define esports, its growth, and why colleges are adding programs

When I say the word “gamer,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Michael Brooks: [00:38:36] the whole thing of, you know, a very, very unhealthy person sitting behind a desk for days, not even hours at this point, days on end, right? Not seeing the Sun or anything like that.

This is Michael Brooks. He’s the director of the National Association of Collegiate Esports — or NACE for short.

Michael Brooks: [cont.] You know, that perception still exists, especially among administrators who aren't gamers, who aren't fans of gaming. Partially because they've never engaged with it.

For students and advisors advocating for esports programs, the process starts with distinguishing esports from other video games.

Michael Brooks: [00:05:12] the big component on what makes an E Sport is to make sure it's skill based, right? You try to remove as much random chance or luck as possible to make sure it really comes down to your skill and the skill of your opponent. 

Think fighting games like Super Smash… cooperative strategy games like League of Legends… or first-person shooters like Valorant. Not Animal Crossing or Candy Crush.

And that’s what makes esports competitive. It’s why you can have tournaments that attract nearly two million viewers. Even during a global pandemic.

[MUSIC ENTERS - “Turn on the Radio”]

Michael Brooks: [00:08:17] COVID underlined the issue, but didn't bring the issue forward on its own. The real reason why e-sports is so of interest to an administration is really because if you look at the demographics, the common points of interest of your future students, even the students today is really gaming.

[00:08:51] You look at the data from Nielsen, for example, and men and women aged 10 to 20 in the United States, the largest common activity is gaming… and it's not number one by a little. It's number one by a lot. 

[00:10:402] You know, if communities are based on common interests and if that common interest is gaming, you better have something around gaming on your campus or you're going to have a lot of people feeling out. 


Michael Wiafe: [00:10:12] So you think it attracts students to campus. 

Michael Brooks: [00:10:17] Very much so, yeah. I mean, that's true with any club, right? Or why do they exist? Well, from a strategic standpoint, it is retention, right? You want to make sure the student feels a part of the community. Otherwise it's much more likely that they will transfer institutions or just drop out entirely.


Ruben Caputo, who we heard at the top of the episode, has seen this effect firsthand in the esports program at CSUDH.

Ruben Caputo: [00:25:41] I remember I had a staff member… that said to me, Ruben, this student hardly says two words, but they couldn't stop talking in this environment, right? And when we talk about preparing our students for the next steps… you have to be able to interview well, you have to be able to articulate your resumé and your portfolio and your findings and your work, et cetera. So that was huge. 

Michael Wiafe: [00:14:50] And I'm curious, how did you develop the program like this? How did you turn it academic, so to speak? And how was that received by the academic community? Did you face any opposition?

[MUSIC FADES IN - “Token Ring”]

Ruben Caputo: [00:15:08] So I have a president who's a big visionary and his name is Dr. Thomas Parham.


[00:17:33] Dr. Parham would say. You know, esports is a strategy and not an outcome. And that was a big statement for us to adopt, understanding that, hey, whether our students are aspiring to be pros, really, the end goal for us is for them to… gain as many field experiences as possible to build upon their resume to build upon their electronic portfolio. 

[00:16:09] So we really had to approach this very tactically, which was we had to meet with our internal community first. 

[00:13:15]  And the goal was to essentially create a certificate course that would help empower our educators to start adopting e-sports curricula and enrichment programs. 

We held a meeting and I called it a meeting of the minds, if you will, and talked about gaming within our internal community… We got together, all the deans, all the directors to talk about gaming and the esports industry. And this is pre-pandemic. So back in 2019, I want to say. And so that was very crucial for us as we pivot, right? So if we're going to share to our external community that we have something like this, like a certificate program, we needed to make sure that we were in alignment. 


After experiencing the success of the program at CSUDH, Caputo’s team wanted to share these benefits with the surrounding community. So in 2020 they created a mentorship program with Compton Unified School District. 

And it was a hit.

Ruben Caputo: [00:32:06] I then have conversations with a couple of parents, like a mom and a dad from a different student in just one on one. They're telling me, Ruben, I've tried every sport for my child and it just didn't jive with them. But this space makes them happy in a time so dark. And that hits me, too, because I remember that… And the great thing about it, too, is that we've had now students that came from Compton that have declared they're going to come to Dominguez Hills and are in Dominguez Hills and have led to leadership type roles within our esports program and have taken our teams to higher ranks within the playoff runs when we talk about competition.  

[MUSIC TRANSITION - “Lounge Love”]

ACT 2 - Impact on students

Alexandra Warren Carrasco is a senior at CSUDH. When I met her on Zoom, she was illuminated by an array of colorful light panels.

Alexandra Warren Carrasco: Just my little Nanoleaf, which are like, these really cool light up LED things that actually display Pantone colors. So yeah, they're pretty impressive. I can't recommend them enough. They make it feel very gamer-y in here.  

Michael Wiafe: [00:01:07] Very much so. I feel like I'm watching a Twitch stream.  

Alexandra Warren Carrasco: [00:01:10] Thank you. Thank you. 


Warren Carrasco got into esports when her boyfriend-now-husband introduced her to League of Legends in 2015. Eventually she joined his team and became involved in the competitive professional scene in LA.

Although she didn’t pursue a career as a player, she told me that esports made all the difference in her college experience and even her career goals.


Alexandra Warren Carrasco: [00:10:20] So I transferred from El Camino right in the middle of the pandemic shutdown, so I had never been to the campus, didn't know anybody... And on top of all of that, my husband's five man team that I used to play with all quit at the same time. So I was like, Wow, this is super sad. Like, surely there's a way that I can find another team, and I had remembered that one of my friends from high school. His college had a collegiate esports team, and I was like, whoa, like, I should definitely see if my college has that.

And after a few years of playing at CSUDH, Alexandra became the ESports Association president.

Alexandra Warren Carrasco: [00:12:22] Frankly, in all honesty, not even inflating it. It completely changed my educational experience. Starting in high school, I've always really struggled with mental health issues, as well as some pretty severe bullying. So it kind of made me just feel like school was a punishment instead of something that I could benefit from and engage with. So finding Esports really gave me a place in school that I had never had before.… Gaming outside of a collegiate program is often really looked down upon by schools and really discouraged at home and by your teachers because they see that as a barrier to learning and becoming more educated. But for me, finding this esports space, it just opened the floodgates to that success, I hope.  

Michael Wiafe: [00:13:57] I've kind of personally found and seen in others that when you enter a campus, at first, it might be a little daunting. And I would say that you're not fully yourself until you find that community and that makes you kind of be yourself… would you say that that's true in your experience?  

Alexandra Warren Carrasco: [00:14:19] Definitely. It feels much safer, and it allows me to focus on things other than my own discomfort. Right. So I can move beyond that discomfort and focus on what I want to do and where I want to grow my career.  

Still, she said there’s room for growth in the Esports Association. Like making it more inclusive.

[MUSIC ENTERS - “Returning Home” - no strings]

Alexandra Warren Carrasco: [00:18:44] Being a woman in the space is definitely incredibly difficult… So one thing we're working on is trying to create first a safe space where they can come and see people like them and talk to people who have had the same experience outside of that competitive aspect.


[00:20:30] Some other work that we've done is a lot of speaking to young women who are interested in STEM fields. We had the opportunity as a club to speak to the EXP Opportunity Engine on their women in STEM panel and speaking to those young high schoolers and middle schoolers… and letting them know that they're not alone and that they can always reach out to us… has, I believe, really helped them kind of continue on with that path.

A few months ago, the ESports Association organized an event like this for girls from local high schools. Coach Collette V Smith, the first Black female coach in the NFL, spoke to the girls about being a woman in a male-dominated space. 

During a Q&A panel at that event, Warren Carrasco compared Smith’s experience coaching in the NFL to the experience of women in esports – and tech careers in general.

One of the guests on the panel was Lindsay Akers, an Intelligent Automation Advisory Leader at Cognizant.


Alexandra (13:50):

What are some of the industry specific difficulties that you've faced throughout your career, and how did you face them?

Lindsay (14:03):

I’ll start… So you guys heard Coach talking about believing in yourself, using your voice. It's difficult in male dominated spaces to do that, not difficult the act of doing it, but the perception and how it's received. Coach talked about she had one individual who gave her a really hard time. That's unfortunately pretty common in technology and e-sports, but if you guys have any kind of fighting spirit in you like she does, you won't let that deter you. [FADE UNDER]

Warren Carrasco said that these speaking opportunities and events have helped build her network as she pursues a career in the esports industry.

And she isn’t alone. As more students pursue careers in this $1 billion industry, colleges and universities should consider creating relevant curriculum to meet the demand.

[MUSIC TRANSITION - “Monday’s Generation”]

ACT 3 - Making Esports a degree/career program w/ Dina Ibrahim


Dina Ibrahim: [00:08:11] I have a nine year old son and we were watching the Super Bowl, and he couldn't sustain attention to watch an entire football game. You know, for two to three hours, he was just like, Oh, this is so long. 

This is Dina Ibrahim. She’s a professor of Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts at San Francisco State. She’s also the executive director of the Cal State Entertainment Alliance.

Dina Ibrahim: [cont.] I know that younger eyeballs are shifting away from traditional sports and into E-Sports. So I wanted to create a class that basically encouraged talent to create their own live streams on Twitch.

[00:08:57] I'm also the faculty advisor for Gaming Gators, which is our e-sports club here at San Francisco State. So I wanted to find a way where I could teach a class that would be working alongside the club to get experience organizing esports tournaments.

[00:28:57] There's a lot of CSU programs that have very strong sports and media production.

[00:30:20] So why not take some of these classes that we have and just rebrand them as esports classes?


And this is how the first livestream broadcasting class at San Francisco State… was born.

Dina Ibrahim: [00:13:22] the first time I taught it was back in fall of nineteen, so pre-pandemic where we had a television studio. So what I did was I collaborated with the sports production class, so they were trained in going out and covering games, right? And I was like, OK, so what if instead of covering a game, you guys actually covered video gamers… And I just let the students run it. 

[00:14:09] They had to go out and get sponsors for the tournament, so they had to approach start ups, local businesses like anybody who wanted to put some money into a prize pool… They sold tickets to the tournament… All of the planning that went into the tournament and the execution of it really served those students well. 

So from fall 19 to today in 2022, those students have gotten jobs in the esports industry... I had a student who was in that fall 19 class who is now on the digital content team for the Portland Trailblazers. And what's interesting about the NBA is that they have the NBA 2K, which is their esports division of the team. So you're seeing the worlds of traditional sports and esports basically combining. 

Esports jobs are in demand. One esports job website, Hitmarker, reported that the number of openings nearly doubled between 2018 and 2019. 

But Ibrahim said that her class teaches students to develop skills that they can use even outside of esports.

Dina Ibrahim: [00:43:47] The partnerships piece is really important. So to be able to just cold call sponsors and companies? 

[00:45:19] You're trying to talk someone into sponsoring your event. So that's a whole entire skill set. The second is marketing, right? We had to get the word out that this tournament was happening. We had to sell tickets. We had to get people to sign up, right? We had to run the whole thing. So it's event management, it’s logistics… It's production 

[00:46:31] Also, I think companies are looking for ways to engage younger audiences. 

[00:47:16] So I think if you have experience with like, I understand gamers and I understand the gamer community, that's a big deal for a lot of employers. 

Although Ibrahim’s class has been a hit among students, she’s struggling to find a permanent home for esports on campus.

[MUSIC ENTERS - “Sunflower”]

Dina Ibrahim: [00:20:39] The main challenge that I'm facing and I'm not alone in this, this is CSU wide, is that our campuses need to dedicate more resources to esports spaces and on each and every one of our campuses. Real estate is tricky. I mean, we only have so much space. 

Dina Ibrahim: [00:25:48] It's like a recipe. So you got to have the campus president who gets it. See, that's the thing. People don't get it. They're like, what?  

Michael: Yeah, 

Dina: And a lot of these folks are parents, right? They're like, Oh God, video games. The kids are wasting their time. It's rotting their brains like, this is so stupid.

Michael Wiafe: [00:26:15] straight from the mouth of my parents, by the way.  

Dina Ibrahim: [00:26:16] Right? Me too. I'm a parent. I get it. I'm like, This is so dumb, but it's not. You know when you can reframe it in terms of community building, in terms of retention, retention is a big issue at CSU's… And I really do think that e-sports can change that.  

[MUS FADE OUT, ~1-2 seconds of silence as ambi fades up]


Ruben (00:40):

All right. Well welcome everybody. I'll just tour you, this is our eSports incubator lab. So this has been, my goodness, years in the making, planning, now in the process, now we're here. Officially construction is completed. [DUCK UNDER]

This is Ruben Caputo again. He’s the advisor and manager of the Esports Association at CSUDH. And he’s giving a tour of the new esports facility in the Leo F. Cain library.

It’s the culmination of more than five years of advocacy by the Esports Association community. 

Ruben Caputo: [00:44:34] I mean, it's huge, right? And… when we planned where this was going to be housed. What we didn't want to do… is put this in a lower level, hidden away, tucked in a corner. There you go. You're done. You know, hands cleared. No, we wanted to feature this front and center. And so what other place than to go into a rich resource building like the library?

No longer will students have to crowd around a few TV’s in the student union. Now, they have a dedicated competition space with top-of-the-line equipment… an incubator space for content creators and commentators (or shoutcasters, as they’re called in esports)... and a classroom space for professors to teach esports — and other relevant curriculum.

It’s a major step forward in creating an esports pipeline for CSUDH’s diverse student body. And it’s a model for other schools to engage populations typically left out of STEM fields.

Ruben (05:25):

The industry has yet to see diversity and inclusion. It's a $1.1 billion industry, and I'm thinking to myself, we can't let that happen. We got to change that… So for us to give this to our students, it's creating opportunities that they couldn't possibly imagine without the fostering care of our leaders that I see here in this room today.


Dominguez Hills’ investment in a permanent home for esports shows other campuses that this program carries the same weight as any other program. 

It shows administrators that esports isn’t a fad. It’s here to stay.

[MUSIC POSTS - “The Tribal Quest”]

[Higher Ed Rewired is produced by the California State University Office of the Chancellor. This podcast is made possible, in part, by the support of the College Futures Foundation: more graduates for a thriving California. Learn more at ‘college-futures-dot-O-R-G’.  To hear more stories like this, Listen at HigherEdRewired.com or subscribe from wherever you get your podcasts.]