Colleges, high schools, and primary education are fostering esports at a grassroots level

Traditional sports succeed, in part, because they’re taught at an early age, and that grassroots enthusiasm often translates into lifelong fandom. For esports to truly thrive, the industry must build not only a talent pipeline but a fan pipeline. The good news is that this is starting to happen across the US at colleges, high schools, and even with after school programs for younger students.

Sports advisory firm Van Wagner, for example, recently partnered with media group Gaming Community Network (GCN) to launch national collegiate esports tournaments. Van Wagner, which represents 110 member schools (about 1.4M students), said each event will feature teams from 10 NCAA conferences; the first competition will take place virtually in Fortnite, with cash prizes and scholarships up for grabs. In addition to holding the exclusive multimedia rights for the participating NCAA conferences, Van Wagner will pursue sponsorships year-round for the tournaments.

This represents a significant step in the maturation of collegiate esports, given the sheer scope of the program. Combining 110 schools and 10 NCAA conferences under one umbrella provides structure – and importantly, sponsor support – to a scene that’s been highly fragmented.

At lower education levels, the YMCA has created an Esports Program for middle school and high school gamers, with league play supporting local, regional, and national competition. Additionally, esports community aggregator and analytics firm Harena Data has launched its own after school esports program. Esports growth at these lower levels effectively provides sponsors a path to become more deeply engrained in the ecosystem, which will be especially helpful for brands attempting to reach consumers at multiple points along their esports journey. In fact, Chick-fil-A recently announced its own high school tournament in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

According to Interpret’s New Media Measure®, tournament participation has become quite popular, especially among younger US gamers, with 18% of 18-24-year-old gamers and 26% of 13-17-year-old gamers having participated in a tournament of some level. For more esports research, be sure to inquire about our twice-monthly insights report, Esports Replay™.