P3 Esports Panel: Knowing Your Audience — The A3 + Student Perspective

25 Oct 2019

P3 Esports Panel: Knowing Your Audience — The A3 + Student Perspective

Video gaming turns our imaginations into reality. Whether it’s discovering a new world or unlocking the latest tool to get past the dragon, gaming is a thrilling experience. However, isn’t winning more exciting when you have someone to cheer you on or watch you play like a legend? Wouldn’t hearing an audience clap and engage with your every step be exhilarating?

The issue facing many colleges and universities as they start an official esports program is how to dedicate space for it. These institutions want to provide gamers and spectators with an energetic and engaging area while satisfying the academic needs of the school and its students. To achieve this aim, university administration, committed departments, and students need to work together and collaborate. We recognize that it’s not always easy to bring these stakeholders together, but it is essential to build a stable and successful esports program.

As a recent college graduate who co-founded an esports organization on campus and a fan of playing video games both casually and competitively, I’d like to inform those who are interested in the collegiate esports space, especially those who attended the P3 Higher Education Summit in San Diego, that you must know your audience and maintain a “we can” attitude.

Seated far right: Abacus3’s Manager of University Relations, Josh Gabay

When starting an esports organization, never forget your primary audience is the student body. The goal is to amplify the students’ voice about creating an environment for student gamers to thrive while welcoming non-gaming students into the community. The benefit of an academic setting is that students already share the connection of attending the same university and having a loyal fanbase. This is similar to how video games frequently place you on the same playing field with others, no matter who or where you are. Some students wish to compete, while others want to build connections with other students who enjoy playing video games and cheer for their team. 

The most powerful connection with gamers I personally experienced was after the first general body meeting I hosted on my university’s campus. The meeting discussed the latest in esports and how we can work together to add esports on our campus. When my presentation ended, everyone stuck around sharing their gamertags and exchanging phone numbers. Most of us were in the middle of studying for midterms, but this night we made an exception. At that moment, it clicked for me that esports is way more than mere competition.

Esports is about building community and furthering what we love to do, which is to play. People who are unfamiliar with esports are often confused about the “spectacle” of watching people play video games.  However, it’s not so different from watching someone play traditional sports. The world of play is what captures the audience of gamers and non-gamers alike.

We can all relate to playing because – whether its baseball, capture the flag, or a video game – all play can be broken down into four categories: chance, competition, mimicry, and vertigo. Picture a simple game of tag. The odds of “tagging” someone (chance) vary throughout the game. There is the “tagger” who tries to not be “it” by “tagging” someone else (competition). The “tagger” morphs himself/herself to be faster and more evasive (mimicry) against the competitor. Lastly, extending our arms to “tag” someone and pushing our bodies (vertigo) is what gets those playing the game to feel like they will be featured on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Highlights the next day.

Understanding the world of play is a stepping stone. It’s what encourages a newcomer at an esports event to return and become immersed in the experience.

Of course, an essential component of that experience is the players. They are the dominant voice of the audience. Our job in the esports industry is to keep this voice projected through Twitch, YouTube, and other streaming and social media platforms because they collectively share the audience’s mentality of continuing that world of play. Without play, there is nothing to watch.

Who is watching? The answer is anyone and everyone. Though statistics show that 73% of esports viewers are ages 18 to 34, we want to capture both gamers and non-gamers alike. From a university perspective, that means having a multi-use esports facility where academic departments can teach their curriculum, gamers can compete in esports tournaments, and casual gamers can play their favorite games with friends. For the students, this is a win-win-win situation: they can learn more about the esports industry in academic courses, represent their university brand on-site and online, and connect with gamers in a social setting.

These students also have the power to provide feedback on the direction of the esports program (remember: esports is not all about competition). For instance, universities that make it easy for students to livestream themselves playing games to an online audience succeed in engaging students and spectators while promoting the university’s brand. Since the esports industry is dynamic and ever evolving with new industrial players entering by the second, university administration will likely lean on the students for guidance.

Voicing out for a streaming pod, for instance, where students can livestream themselves playing games to an online audience, furthers outreach of the university’s brand potential. To understand what their students want from an esports program, universities should create a survey with questions about what esports should look like on campus. Again, not everyone wants the competition. Some just want an easy way to connect with another student and play a game. This scenario can be two students who never met before sitting down and playing Mario Kart at a study break. All that’s needed is a comfy couch and controllers for students to control their world of play.

However, the student audience is just a sliver of a university’s esports audience. There are alumni, locals, families, traditional sports fans, non-traditional sports fans, and many more. Through esports events, livestreams, academic courses, speaker opportunities, etc., the university world is your oyster. Still, many burgeoning collegiate esports programs find they have more questions than answers. How much space is needed? How should I feel when I enter the space? What is missing for my members? What sponsors can build this space to greater potential? What makes this space unique? How is this space sharing the values of the university? The questions can go on and on.

Fortunately, my job at Abacus3 is to answer these questions while sustaining and growing student esports organizations through competitions, community-building opportunities, and future career paths. We fulfill the fan experience, no matter who enters the esports spaces we build and design. We also help universities understand their audience and connect the university with the local and global base of players. An ideal way to enter the space is to create a live esports event on campus. Any person curious about what esports is all about must see it to believe it. If an event featured both casual and competitive gaming atmospheres as well as educational components, then administrators can view the opportunities with growing the university brand in other educational spaces (i.e. middle schools, high schools, and academic departments) and showing potential sponsors how they can create a symbiotic relationship with the university. 

By connecting with the esports and gaming student organization(s) on their goals, gaining student feedback, and finding an underutilized space on campus, we can paint a more detailed picture of building out a multi-use home for the esports audience (that being academic, casual, competitive, etc.). Imagine the space being used not only for competitions and live events but also academic curriculum and speaker opportunities that can dive into topics such as blockchain, ethics in gaming, game design, esports marketing, mental health awareness and player wellness, gaming data analytics, user research, and more. The esports and gaming industries are looking for engaged students who know how to supply this passionate audience with content and have open arms to their new esports home.

Universities need to rethink the logics of esports and look at it from 30,000 feet. Ask yourself how one gamer can connect to a non-gamer (and vice versa) and how to convert a non-gamer to a gamer. Center the question around how it relates to the world of play, and you’ll most likely get the answers you’re looking for to satisfy members of your audience. Create a multi-use space that is adaptive, inclusive, comforting, and where gaming acts as the connective tissue.

At the P3 Esports Panel, I shared more light on the student and Abacus3 perspectives for strategizing successful collegiate esports programs. All it takes is pressing “Start,” and you’re in.

Welcome, new player.