Video Gaming and Academic Scholarship Join Forces for Kent State’s First Esports Tournament

If you enjoy playing video games — you are a hobbyist.

If you enter competitions — you are a gamer.

If you like to watch others play — you are a fan.

Together, all three make up esports, one of the fastest growing industries in the world — playing games such as Counter Strike, League of Legends, Overwatch and HearthStone Heroes of Warcraft. Universities are catching on to the subculture — offering students varsity esports programs with practice facilities, tournaments and even scholarships.

“You have to meet students where they are, and they are gaming,” says Steve Toepfer, Ph.D., associate professor of human development and family studies at Kent State University at Salem. “This is the new pastime. This is what they do. Students like to play video games, casually and competitively.” 

There are approximately 70 collegiate esports programs around the county. More than half developed just in the past year, and Kent State University is no exception. The Kent Campus alone has 16 student egaming clubs. Kent State Salem offers scholarships. Kent State University at Tuscarawas has created a strong team, while teams at Kent State University at Stark and Kent State University at East Liverpool are growing.

“This is happening all around Kent State’s eight-campus system on the Regional Campuses,” says Nathan Ritchey, Ph.D., vice president for Kent State System Integration. “We think that esports aligns perfectly with our One University mission and exemplifies our commitment to creating an inclusive environment.”

In its first effort to gauge interest, Kent State launched an esports tournament on May 5 on the Kent Campus in the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center (MAC Center). Kent State students from all campuses and students from area high schools competed for scholarships and other prizes. Students were invited to join with friends to sign up for the team-game Overwatch or go head-to-head in the two-player virtual card game Hearthstone, as well as join Kent State’s multitude of student organizations playing console games and others. Organizers also planned some informational sessions around other popular games in the space, such as League of Legends and Fortnite, which may have game times too long for a casual tournament or have uncertain interest level from the student body.

“Worldwide, 27 million people play League of Legends every day, and 2.7 million are high school seniors,” Dr. Toepfer says. “If the top 3 percent of those can get into Kent State, then 81,000 students might make Kent State their first choice.”

In addition to attracting students from around the nation to the university, organizers say growing an esports program will help grow international enrollment, improve the retention rate and could even lead to new degree opportunities.

“This is also a potential area to foster innovation in students, if you look at what OpenAI is doing with games and machine-learning, the emerging broadcast potential of companies like Twitch or the people working with virtual reality and immersive space,” says Tim Pagliari, project director working with Kent State’s Regional Campuses. “It’s really exciting to see these creative technologies and solutions to problems coming out of the gaming world.”

The goal is to design a community-centered program that cultivates a sense of belonging and pride with hands-on coaching, specialized advising and a variety of games at both the club and varsity level. The program also will focus on recruiting top gamers, offer scholarships to ensure a highly competitive program, and provide training spaces and online practice sessions and coaching.

Unlike any varsity esports program, Kent State would like to take a holistic approach to student-gamers with an emphasis on health, including an exercise regimen tailored to counteract long hours sitting down and a best-practices approach to mental and emotional factors so that student-gamers become well-rounded individuals beyond the team.

“We want to promote this as the first healthy esports program in the country. Why? Because some of the stigma is that computer games are addictive and you’re sitting in a chair when you play,” Vice President Ritchey says. 

In addition to health, Kent State esports will focus on research. Student-gamers are expected to take part in research conducted by the university and partners who are trying to better understand esports.

“There are lots of opportunities to research topics like health,” Dr. Toepfer says. “There is almost no research on esports and well-being, so there are lots of opportunity for scholars to study what esports can do to promote health in student gamers. What I’d like to do is develop a lab so we can measure the effects of doing this.”

As Kent State designs and shapes its esports program, it sees its first-ever tournament as a launch pad to a future where gaming and scholarship form a new type of team that competes for the best interest of students.

To learn more about Kent State’s esports program, visit

UPDATED: Sunday, June 23, 2024 03:15 PM
Kristin Anderson