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University-Industry Engagement Advisor

Not into esports? You may be missing an opportunity for industry engagement

By David Schwartz
Published: June 8th, 2021

A detailed article on the growth of esports and the opportunities it presents for university-industry collaborations appears in the May issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here. 

Looking for new opportunities to create successful collaborations with industry? How about esports? What’s that, you say? You’re really not that familiar with esports — and besides, what do they have to do with U-I partnerships?

Those answers and more were provided in an esports session during the recent UIDP 2021 virtual conference, “Esports: What Will it Take to Build a Roadmap for U-I Collaboration?” If you think the idea is far-fetched, consider that esports is already a billion-dollar enterprise at the collegiate level. A large number of universities have already caught on; the “League of Legends” includes membership of about 400 universities.

And yet, on many campuses esports operate in the shadows, at best. “Generally, higher education leadership does not have a good grasp of what gaming and esports even means,” asserted Kurt Melcher, executive director of gaming and esports with Intersport, an organization that provides marketing solutions, business strategy, investment intelligence and original production services to brands, publishers, leagues, teams, universities, and investors. “There’s a little detachment from how it is to the core customer — students.”

The gaming industry, he continued, “is massive — twice the size of music, box office. Every metric we’ve seen shows a ‘hockey stick’ trajectory.”

Melcher, who one panelist referred to as “The Godfather of collegiate esports,” noted that while there’s no single way to address the esports market, that represents an advantage rather than a challenge. “It’s massively fragmented — different publishers, platforms, brand initiatives,” he noted. “The opportunity lies in broad application across many different verticals on campus — there’s a research component, technology, design components.” Many university leaders, he said, “do not have a great understanding of that potential.”

But a growing number of major companies do understand, and therein lies part of the opportunity in industry engagement. “One of the things we look at in evaluating every opportunity — is the program sustainable?” posed Sierra Reid, esports program manager with Intel Corporation. “We do not want to come in, put on a logo, drop off hardware, and ‘peace out’ — we leave. Want an in-depth, high-impact partnership.”

That partnership, she continued, can go beyond hardware or dollars. “There are so many other resources — mentorship, internships, and wealth of knowledge just to be in this space,” she said. “It’s a new space for lots of people; we’re in it over 15 years and there are insights we can pass on to help develop programs, and [to help] students if they want to pursue the space when they graduate. It’s a key pillar to look for.”

How does a university with an esports team attract industry partners? “Obviously, it takes trust, and some time to build,” said Mark Deppe, director or UCI (University of California Irvine) Esports, whose team has an arena on campus. Deppe was selected to serve as the inaugural commissioner for the North America Scholastic Esports Federation, helping connect learning to student interests, and now serves as Executive Director of National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE).

“You can’t build a perfect partnership right away. Start small, a logo on a jersey, a lunch, [an industry rep] sitting on a panel. If you try to put together a 10-year massive package with someone you’ve just met, it will not work.”

Today, he shared, UCI has a leadership board the sponsors sit on, and regular engagement. “I developed a business school internship where MBA students meet bi-weekly with sponsors, but that’s taken five years to build,” he noted. “Now we have a phenomenally smooth communications structure where marketing efforts are aligned.” Again, he reminded the audience that you must start small. “Start the relationship, even if it’s a little bit of hardware. If it’s a great relationship it will grow, but if you’re set up for an ‘explosion’ it will disappoint,” he cautioned.

“Our belief in a holistic strategy really does work with engaging company and university,” added Anne O’Donnell, senior executive director of corporate relations at UC San Diego and the panel moderator. “We may start with a marketing person. But if I ask about R&D people, or recruiters, I can begin to start weaving a conversation around whether this company would like a lot of other aspects of our esports and gaming, like diversity and inclusion. As a professional corporate relations officer, you can weave a story that’s a pretty compelling proposition for a company.”

“From the university side, the true asset is the talent — the students and faculty, investment in research — all those elements,” added Melcher.

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Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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