Game On: Esports as a Tool for Virtual Student Engagement

The collegiate esports community has kept its gaming students connected across the country. Learn how Shenandoah and DePaul University adapted to help their students adjust.

By Chris Hayhurst, Contributor

When COVID-19 forced college and university students to go home early, many struggled with the new social reality: Not only would they have to adapt to remote learning, they’d also have to live without school activities—and, in many cases, the friendships that came with them.

One notable exception to the rule? The students who were participating in college esports, where games could go on despite the pandemic.


Esports, or multiplayer video game competitions using high-powered PCs like Alienware or gaming consoles, have seen rapid growth on college campuses over the last few years. There are now more than 170 member schools in the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), and at least 5,000 students nationwide participate in esports at the “varsity” level. As the COVID-19 outbreak ramped up, collegiate in-person esports tournaments were cancelled, as were the majority of on-campus gaming events. But virtually, this community kept humming.

Everything was different, but it was also the same.

This was the overarching message from the two expert panelists who took part in a recent Dell Technologies Education Strategy webinar that asked whether esports could be a tool for remote student engagement. Joey Gawrysiak, director of esports at Shenandoah University, and Courtney James, director of student involvement at DePaul University, shared their thoughts on the subject with Dell’s Danielle Rourke, senior strategist, higher education.

Shenandoah fields four varsity and two club-level esports teams, and is one of just a few schools in the country to offer an esports management major. Before March, the students practiced and competed in a dedicated esports arena equipped with the latest gaming technologies. But then the pandemic hit, the facility was shut down, and Gawrysiak and other program leaders turned their attention to ensuring everyone’s safety. Within a week or two, however, they were back on track—just with students in their homes instead of face to face.

“I don’t know if there’s any right or wrong way” to run an esports program remotely, Gawrysiak says. At Shenandoah, they decided to leverage Discord, a real-time chat platform that allows gamers to interact and communicate as they play. (Discord provides groups—individual colleges, for instance—with their own customizable servers.) They also realized early on that success would require significant “adjusting, and trying to do what’s best for your students given the situation that you have.”

“They (esports participants) faced the same pause that everyone else faced. I think people see the online nature of video games, and they assume, ‘Oh, they’re fine.’ They really weren’t.”

—Courtney James, director of student involvement, DePaul University

It was a similar story at DePaul, James says, where their campus esports community includes more than 1,200 students. Last semester, around 100 students gamed competitively, primarily against other schools that are members of the Big East Conference (DePaul won the conference’s Esports Invitational tournament last December, beating Seton Hall in a Rocket League match-up). Like Shenandoah, the university maintains a gaming center where students congregate not only to play but also to socialize and connect with one another. When the school closed in the wake of the coronavirus, gamers—like other students—“had a lot of bumps” to deal with, James explains. “They faced the same pause that everyone else faced. I think people see the online nature of video games, and they assume, ‘Oh, they’re fine.’ They really weren’t.”

Eventually, they got past the initial shock of the shutdown and began to think about ways they might return to gaming, James says. Discord, again, proved invaluable in this regard, as many students embraced the platform as the go-to tool for conversing with their friends. And so did a general willingness to bend the rules of engagement: During informal competition, for example, students agreed on how a game might be restarted if a participant temporarily lost their home internet connection. “Eighty to 90 percent of our students are non-varsity-level competitors,” James notes. “They compete because they find this fun.”

The DePaul esports program, like Shenandoah’s, organized a number of intramural tournaments that took place virtually during the shutdown. Students competed in games like League of Legends, Overwatch, and Rocket League over four weeks of regular play and a two-week playoff, for example, while others took part in one-day Super Smash Bros. tournaments, or Fortnite, Valorant, or Animal Crossing competitions. Overall, nearly 170 people participated in the virtual games, and another 500 watched them as they took place. DePaul’s students, James says, “were looking for ways to connect, and esports was a great way to do it.”

“They’re reaching out to each other and to people that will be here next year to start developing” a plan, “which has been really cool for me to see.”

—Joey Gawrysiak, director of esports, Shenandoah University

During the webinar, Gawrysiak and James answered questions from viewers about the impact that continued involvement in esports has had on the college students they used to see in person. At Shenandoah, Gawrysiak’s watched online as students have “stepped up and really organized” and worked with the university president on possible scenarios for next semester. “They’re reaching out to each other and to people that will be here next year to start developing” a plan, he says, “which has been really cool for me to see.”

James, too, expressed admiration for her students and the friendships and conversations they’ve managed to maintain simply by continuing to play the games they love. Like their non-gaming peers, they had to adapt to challenging times; esports, she says, has proved to be their answer—their gathering place for maintaining “human connection.”