SANTA MONICA, CA - MAY 28: A general view during the match between University of Toronto and Maryville University in the League of Legends College Championship at the NA LCS Studio at Riot Games Arena on May 28, 2017 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images)

With a win at the Level Next Rocket League tournament, the University of Akron racked up their third esports title of ’20-’21. The dream run capped off a stellar May/June, where the Zips took home the CRL and Rainbow 6 Premier Finals as well. Not only did Akron prove it was one of the top esports programs in the region, it’s making a case for the best in the country. But they aren’t the only esports powers in America’s Rust Belt. In two of their finals, they faced off against other schools from the area, Northwood University in Michigan and Purdue in Indiana. But across all of the major games, save for Call of Duty, the Midwest is starting to dominate college esports. So how is the midwest doing so well despite being hundreds of miles from esports’ epicenters?

Victims of Place, Victors of Opportunity

California could be considered the home of American esports. Some of the first competitive fighting game tournaments took place there back in the 90’s. The LCS and Riot Games are headquartered there. So is Blizzard, Capcom America and so on. Because so much of the video game industry lives in California, it’s easy to think that college esports would as well. But that hasn’t been the case.

Over the past five years, college esports has grown to massive heights with the midwest leading the charge. Maryville University in Missouri is a two time College League of Legends champion, and an Overwatch champion. Northwood University in Michigan came out of nowhere in Fall 2020 to become a force in Rocket League and Overwatch. In fact, since 2018 every College Rocket League champion has come from either Ohio or Michigan.

Coach of Aquinas College and CPOC contributor, Adam Antor, says the region’s woes with enrollment may have lead to the surge of recruitment.

…the institutions that see the most value in creating esports programs are small private schools looking for new and innovative ways to increase enrollment.” Antor says. “On average, college enrollment isn’t declining on the coasts, but it is in the Midwest.”

Over the past few years, the numbers back that up. According to National Center for Education Statistics, the coasts have grown or kept up college enrollment from 2014 to 2019. However, states like Michigan (-15%), Illinois (-13%) and Missouri (-13%) were seeing big drops in new college students. And while esports hasn’t been a panacea for decreasing enrollment, it has been a new avenue for scholarships.

Miami (OH) is another program that’s made moves in esports. Their team made it to the Quarterfinals the Overwatch Collegiate Championship in 2021.
Source: Miami University

It Takes Money To Make Winners

If there’s one thing that esports is starting to have in common with traditional ones its in team building. At the college level, scholarships are vital to the lifeblood of a sports program. And while it’s easy to forget that most scholarships are small (on average about $10k), they are still critical in getting the top flight talent. And when looking at the most dominant esports programs of the past few years, the’ve been at the fore with scholarships.

“1000000%, You can’t do [winning programs] without scholarships”. said Northwood University head coach, Cody Elsen.

Northwood’s quick rise is directly attributed to key scholarships offered to former Rocket League pros and Overwatch contenders. And, seemingly overnight, a small private university in the middle of Michigan became an esports powerhouse. Across the midwest you see similar stories. It also bears mentioning that Maryville University is also the alma mater of Ethan “Iconic” Wilkinson, who currently starts for Golden Guardians in the LCS. Unlike traditional sports, the college to pro transition is rare. More often than not, esports pros sign right after highschool. But Iconic’s story, helps to further solidify that pro level talent is cultivated in midwestern esports.

While many schools across the country offer esports scholarships, Rust Belt schools have been the most generous. There’s also a higher rate of varsity programs as opposed to clubs. Providing the vital status that allows scholarships and university support & branding.

Will The Saga Continue?

As it stands, it doesn’t look like the region is going to let go of its grip on esports. However, two massive states are looking to dethrone the midwest. Texas and Florida are consistently in the mix with a number of top programs. North Texas, UT-Dallas, Central Florida and Texas Tech are all making major investments into their programs. And in the case of Texas, a growing population and student body could provide even more talent.

Also, once some of the larger universities in the country fully support their esports programs, we could see a few small, midwestern schools drop in pecking order. But as Akron, Northwood, and Maryville keep winning, the middle of America is crafting the next layer of college esports. One where the structure of the team has more in common with from the basketball program, than a student org. It’s a template that California had the opportunity to create, but now manifests in Ohio, Missouri and Michigan.