While esports has spent much of 2017 building and formalizing infrastructure, Tespa has been around since 2013 as a network of collegiate-level esports clubs and tournaments. It now boasts over 65,000 members and 220 chapters at different universities and, working in partnership with Blizzard Entertainment, is planning on awarding over $1 million in scholarships through its leagues for the 2017-2018 academic year.
The organization announced today that it’s also rolling out a new “Tespa University” initiative, which will open membership to all college students in North America and also help esports fans at universities connect with each other.
“Traditionally, when we think about Tespa membership, it’s been limited to students who attend a university that has a Tespa chapter,” said Tyler Rosen, who cofounded Tespa with his brother Adam Rosen. “While we have a lot of Tespa chapters, 220 right now, we realized that the people who—the net, effectively, of students who are interested in participating is a lot wider than that.”
Aside from the students who participate in Tespa, the Rosens say that they’ve seen a lot of support from college communities in general. They’ve especially seen a spike in interest from communities as well as the schools themselves when they’ve livestreamed their league games.
In 2016, ESPN broadcast the Tespa finals of Heroes of the Dorm, a tournament focused on Blizzard’s multiplayer online battle arena game Heroes of the Storm. A team from Arizona State won the competition, which attracted the attention of the university.
“The university gave them a housing scholarship to supplement the full tuition they won at Heroes of the Dorm,” said Adam. “They took them out to a baseball game and honored them on the field. They gave esports memorabilia to everyone that showed up. They did fan signings. It’s really cool, because now the university is one of our biggest advocates.”
This year, they plan on increasing their broadcasts to six times a week.
Even for folks who are unfamiliar with esports, the Rosens say that couching it in athletic rivalry makes it something that’s easy to grok. Similar to how Blizzard is formalizing city-based teams with the Overwatch League, Tespa uses collegiate affiliations as a gateway to getting people interested in esports.
“If you look at traditional professional esports leagues, you see endemic brands like Cloud 9 or Immortals [these are esports organizations that run teams for various games]. If you aren’t familiar with those brands, the competition may be more difficult to get into,” said Tyler. “But if you turn on ESPN and you see ASU versus Cal, or Michigan versus Ohio State, it’s more relatable. No matter who you are, you have some affiliation with those schools that gets you excited about the game and interested in esports.”
The Rosens say they’ve been seeing more official support from universities, particularly from the UC Irvine and Utah.
“Both of those schools, in the last six months, have rolled out what they’re calling varsity teams. Players that they’re officially scholarshipping, just they would for traditional sports, to play Overwatch for their university,” said Tyler. “It’s continuing to grow. There’s a ton of excitement and a ton of new universities we’re working with right now who are interested in the space.”
Like other campus sports (though esports aren’t members of the two biggest college sports governing bodies in the U.S., the National Collegiate Athletic Association or National Athletic of Intercollegiate Athletics), it requires its participants to maintain minimum GPAs as well as minimum enrollment credits. It’s also formalizing seasons and offseasons for its esports league this year, taking a cue from traditional sports. These are all decisions that also make it friendly to the universities in hopes of encouraging universities to officially support their esports teams.
“Similar to sports, where you think about football, college football happens in the fall and college basketball happens in the spring. Now, college Overwatch happens in the fall and college Heroes of the Storm happens in the spring,” said Adam. “We’re really focused on creating structures that are consistent and predictable, that allow universities to look in at esports — which, if they don’t understand it, can be daunting at first — and have a structure that’s familiar to them and makes it easy for them to invest.”
Right now, the Rosens are focused only on the college esports scene. They’ve forged some high-powered partnerships, particularly in Blizzard, who’s sponsoring the $1 million in scholarship prizes that students can win by competing in tournaments like Heroes of the Dorm. Tespa is also introducing a new Rocket League tournament this year, with prizes funded by the developer Psyonix.
Looking at the broader esports scene, though, the Rosens again look toward traditional sports as a way to think about how the ecosystem could work in the future.
“Children play in Little League and then go on to middle school and high school sports, onward to college, and some to the professional scene. We see each of those levels being really important to the success of esports,” said Adam. “We definitely think that, for example, top players in high school should be able to look at colleges and find a pathway to their college education through esports. Right now we’re focused on the collegiate level, but as we look forward we’re definitely interested in making sure that all levels of the ecosystem are taken care of and tightly connected.”