Rising Stars: All-women's Stephens College breaks ground with varsity esports program

The Stephens College Overwatch club plays in Dudley Hall, a building on the Columbia, Missouri, campus. Stephens became the first women's college to sponsor varsity esports Thursday with the announcement of a scholarship-sponsored Overwatch team. Provided by Stephens College

An all-women's college became a pioneering institution in esports Thursday.

Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, will be the first women's college to sponsor a varsity esports program. The Stars will field an Overwatch team starting in Fall 2017 that will compete in the Tespa series.

Sixteen months ago, Stephens College president Dianne Lynch and her colleagues floated the idea of an esports roster. From there, circumstances came together perfectly. Overwatch, a game lauded for its character diversity and inclusiveness, was a fit for Stephens and a hit with its students. Other colleges across the country, including nearby Columbia College, were quickly picking up scholarship programs. And as the plan came together, there were a lot more why-nots than doubts.

"Our mission is to ensure that women can succeed and can make choices about anything they do in any environment and in any profession," she said. "That's our mission. So why would we not do it in esports?"

The choice of Blizzard's popular first-person shooter was intentional, Lynch said. It meshed with the college's mission, just like breaking ground in collegiate esports did.

There are professional all-women's teams, and that circle is particularly strong in pro Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. But Stephens is the first varsity collegiate program of its kind in the U.S., if not the world.

"We always consider ourselves early adopters, or a kayak in the water, as I would say, rather than an ocean liner," Lynch said. "We have the capacity and the appetite for doing something new that allows us to say, 'Let's try this.' Let's see if we can provide an environment where women have an opportunity to, in some ways, break barriers."

Those 16 months of preparation allowed Stephens to gather resources and create a launch plan that places esports right alongside its partner sports. Players will receive partial scholarships and all the benefits and resources available to the Stars' eight other athletics programs. Ideally, Lynch said, the team will have a six-person "bench" to go along with its six-woman starting squad.

The esports team will be housed under the information technology department at Stephens because, just like the NCAA, there is no infrastructure in place within the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for esports.

"This is just an extension of what it means to be an athlete," Lynch said. "Athletics has certain characteristics and certain qualities that enrich an athlete's life. There are multiple kinds of athletics, and this is just a new kind.

"It's different, and it looks different, and it feels different, but it is, as you know, one of the most rapidly growing industries and athletic events in the world."

Female players, though, haven't had much of a presence in that growth. The difficulties for women trying to break into esports, and gaming spaces in general, are well-documented. Lynch and her staff know how caustic the community can be, especially toward women.

"Our hope is that we will be able to create a culture on campus where the only people in the room who are gaming are women, so you have this dynamic that eliminates that other, sort of negative culture out of their immediate space." Dianne Lynch, Stephens College president

But the discrepancy between women who game and women who play competitively has no basis in physiology. This isn't football, Lynch said; the demographic standards can be broken.

"We recognize that that is the current status quo in commercial professional gaming and even in recreational gaming," she said.

As the frequently-cited Entertainment Software Association report from 2016 notes, 41 percent of gamers are female. However, according to a report from SuperData, 65 percent of players and participants in the most popular esports titles are men.

Stephens is taking a step toward closing the gap. It will take part in Overwatch leagues in Tespa, which puts on the Heroes of the Dorm series. Adam Rosen, who co-founded Tespa with his brother seven years ago at the University of Texas-Austin, was able to provide $800,000 in scholarship funds through his tournaments this past year.

Its fall Overwatch event, the Tespa Collegiate League, drew 220 teams with $100,000 up for grabs. This spring, nearly 250 programs are competing in its Training Grounds series despite no scholarship money being on the line.

Stephens will enter the Tespa landscape this fall and try to make a mark immediately.

"Stephens, specifically, is really unique, particularly in the interest the university has in the team," Rosen said. "I think the team, hopefully, will be role models for others. Having a team like Stephens involved, I think will be an inspiration for students. ... They're all taking it so seriously and making all the right moves."

The best example of Stephens' commitment? The fact it just missed being among the first 30 programs in the country to add a scholarship program and that the administration is set on promoting its team.

"Our hope is that we will be able to create a culture on campus where the only people in the room who are gaming are women, so you have this dynamic that eliminates that other, sort of negative culture out of their immediate space," Lynch said, "and that there will come, over time, the same kind of expectations of sportsmanship and appropriate behavior and civility and courtesy in the college gaming space that we expect in all of the rest of our athletics programs.

"That, as it grows over time, will have an impact on the culture and the level of tolerance for incivility and sexism in the universe of gamers."

That change won't happen overnight -- or within months, or perhaps within years. But that's a challenge the Stars are willing to take on with the help of several organizations that have offered their support for the program.

Stephens became a member of the National Association of Collegiate Esports, which houses 31 scholarship-sponsored esports programs and assists them with creating and cultivating their programs. It is, in effect, the NCAA or NAIA of esports. According to NACE, its 31 member schools make up 95 percent of the current body of varsity teams in the U.S.

Michael Brooks, the administrator of NACE, noted that those teams are co-ed. But despite being open to women's recruitment, many of the rosters are made up of mostly, if not entirely, men. Those schools are struggling to answer a question: How can an esports program recruit women?

Stephens, Brooks said, has a chance to answer that question, to its benefit and the benefit of NACE membership.

"Stephens College is certainly unique in this space," he said. "They're really in uncharted territory. There will be a ton of interest watching how they develop."

There are obstacles for Stephens, though: making sure women know about their program, dealing with toxicity from outsiders when it appears and other stumbling blocks that appear for those who take on a pioneering role.

"It's time for a women's institution and women's culture to stand up and say, 'We can do this, and we expect to be treated with civility, and we expect the competition will be about talent rather than anything else,'" Lynch said. "We're not naïve. We expect that there will be moments of difficulty -- maybe lots of them. But at some point, women have always stood up and said, 'No, we're going to be a part of this. And you will, we will, be treated with the civility and respect we deserve.'

"Why should esports be any different?"