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Funding Your Esports Initiative: Challenges & Solutions

Nov 12

Written by: Grants Office, LLC
Tuesday, November 12, 2019  RssIcon

By Elizabeth Evans

Esports, a form of competition using video games, features either individuals or teams vying towards some predetermined goal (which changes depending upon the game) in a tournament setting. With more and more televised events and streaming services making competitions publicly accessible, the world of Esports has seen an incredible boost in popularity over the last decade. It has moved out of a niche corner of geekdom and into the mainstream consciousness.

Proponents of Esports tout the activity as a means for players to learn essential noncognitive skills (e.g. teamwork and management of emotions) as well as valuable technical skills related to future employment in broadcasting, production, and even management. It is therefore no wonder that educational organizations are starting to take notice! By participating in Esports, students are no longer pigeon-holed into the life of a professional gamer; instead they are on the pathway towards a burgeoning career field!

As more and more school districts and institutions of higher education gain interest in the possibilities of Esports though, many wonder how they will be able to finance the often expensive equipment needed for start-up and eventual tournament success in these new arenas.  Following we’ll look at some of the biggest challenges to finding external funding for your Esports initiative, as well as offer guidance on potential solutions.

The Challenge with Funding

While educational institutions are eager and willing to innovate and incorporate Esports into their current portfolio of offerings – be it through after school clubs or actual competitive teams –, most grant funders tend to be a bit wearier of the Esports concept. The reasons for this are varied and largely depend upon the individual funder.

State and federal opportunities for K-12 education institutions are usually tied to measurable student learning outcomes. In most instances these learning outcomes are based upon some state standard for basic education, an apprenticeship or career and technical education credentialing benchmark, or prerequisite towards future post-secondary success. This is largely because the public grant funds are only made available through legislation which dictates that monies be used towards specific, proven K-12 learning activities. While being able to accomplish a record number of “player-kills” or “capture the flag” instances within an Esports environment is impressive, these feats don’t necessarily translate to established knowledge-driven learning outcomes. Therefore, positioning an Esports initiative to a state or federal grant is often exceedingly difficult.

At the higher education level, the outlook is much the same. Education and research activities have long been established as the primary and secondary role of higher education institutions. Unfortunately, competitive sports programs are considered a tertiary function (at best). Federal regulations prevent publicly sourced funding that a college or university receives from being used towards activities that do not further their educational or research mission. Therefore, many institutions expect that their tertiary departments – like Residence Life and Athletics – be self-supporting rather than draw from general institution funds. Through ticket sales and individual boosters or donors sporting departments can thrive, but if you check the ledgers you will find that they are siloed off from any state or federal grant funding the institution may receive.

An added challenge with state and federal funding opportunities is that the current landscape sees almost no grant support dedicated to competition-oriented activities. There are a few public funding agencies that occasionally give dispensation for applicants to “test out” competition-based learning activities as an innovative means for increased student engagement (particularly for underrepresented groups), but these offerings are rare. Funding is even more scarce when you consider that competition opportunities must still be tied to specific student learning outcomes or workforce readiness initiatives. Examples where this has been done successfully include state-funded competitions for K-12 robotics teams, or federally funded “hack-a-thons” for computer science and cybersecurity undergraduates. In each case the lines between competition activities and student demonstration of mastery over key professional competencies are clear and observable (i.e. “student was able to solder connecting circuits on the robot’s motherboard”, “student was able to circumvent firewall and open an encrypted file within the time limit”).

Esports faces a compounding challenge in grant funding due to its very name. Esports is often categorized as a competitive sport but lacks any cardio physical activity. This means that those state and federal K-12 grantmakers who are open to funding student sporting teams (due to the health benefits from participating in physical sports) will not see the desired student wellness gains from their investment. Esports are similarly blocked from private funding opportunities such as those from former professional sports players with established foundations, sporting teams and associations, or retailers who support youth sporting endeavors – all of which are restricted to physical sporting activities.

Lastly, and perhaps the biggest challenge is that grant funders - be they public or private, dedicated to K-12 or higher education - are often slow to change and hesitant of investing their funds in efforts they see as a potential flash-in-the-pan, or fad. Grant funders are motivated by projects or programs that can create long-term change and sustained improvement. They want to make awards to organizations who have plans to be responsible stewards of their investment and who are confident the proposed initiative will deliver the desired results. With minimal longitudinal research available on the impact of Esports for student success, funders are hesitant to consider such a proposal.

All of that said, all hope is not lost for getting funding support for your school’s Esports initiative. Following we have a number of suggestions for your consideration.

Grant Seeking with Local Foundations

A few years ago, when game companies were initially trying to establish competitive Esports in the public mindset, we did see the occasional technology business, corporate-funded grant competition specifically for Esports at educational institutions. Sadly, those days and the bulk of such opportunities have passed. Electronic Arts, for example, no longer offers free product giveaways or support for team startup costs. At this point, the demand has been established and schools have demonstrated that they are willing to pay to play. So, what options does this leave schools looking to start an Esports program?

Start in your own backyard! Grant professionals know that when it comes to funder prospecting, the lowest hanging fruit are those grant makers in your own community. The reasons for this are many, but chiefly it is because the funder likely already has heard of your school and may even have some personal connection. Target local or regionally based funders interested in supporting education institutions or projects. Those with a particular emphasis on STEM are ideal.

While you are certainly welcome to come out of the gate swinging with a request for funding your competitive Esports team, focusing too much on the competition/gaming aspect may not be the best approach for the reasons mentioned earlier. Instead frame your request for the necessary line items – equipment, supplies, staff training, etc. – as essential for helping you reach specific education-oriented, or skills-based goals for students. Connecting participation in an after school Esports club as the means to an end for students learning about game design and development, for example, will resonate much more than wanting to put your school on the map for winning various Esports league titles. Given that foundations afford more flexibility in how their awarded monies can be spent (compared to state and federal grants) they are also more likely to be accepting of Esports as a means for facilitating general STEM education goals rather than state specific standards or workforce credentialing benchmarks.

Just remember, when working with local foundations do not presume that the funder has any knowledge about Esports. Locally focused foundation funders often ask family members, friends, or volunteers to help them read through proposals. These reviewers come from all walks of life and may not be familiar with cutting edge education or technology solutions. Be prepared to start from square one, particularly if the proposal review team is comprised of luddites unaware of the Esports movement. You may need to do some significant relationship building with the funder prior to submission to know that they won’t disregard your request immediately because they didn’t understand it.

Consider Sponsorship

While not a traditional grant opportunity, many of the same skills one might use towards pursuing a foundation funding opportunity can also be employed towards seeking sponsorship for your team. Unlike grants, sponsorship is provided by businesses who often don’t have an established grantmaking arm but still want to invest in their community through various donations. In exchange, the business often receives some kind of recognition, be it through having their name and logo on the team’s jersey, website, or other printed materials.

Begin with knowing exactly what it is you are asking for a potential sponsor to support. Depending on the business you could be requesting a monetary or in-kind donation. For instance, a local embroidery or screen-printing shop might be willing to provide your team’s shirts. A local technology vendor could offer computers, graphics cards, or miscellaneous accessories. Your local grocer may just offer to cut a check for an agreed upon expense.

Also be prepared to tell your potential sponsor what you plan to offer in return; free advertising or other publicity is a common option. If a local restaurant is sponsoring your team, you might offer to ensure that the team always goes to their establishment for a post-competition meal (which students pay for individually). Whereas if a local credit union is sponsoring your team, you could instead offer to establish a checking account for team related expenses or have students establish savings accounts to deposit any individual competition winnings.

Remember to thank sponsors in the same way you would thank and recognize any grantmaker. Send thank you notes, holiday cards, and updates on the team’s progress throughout the year. Simple outreach efforts build the relationship between your Esports program and its sponsors, hopefully turning them into a habitual source of funds.

Fundraise from Individual Donors

If your institution is in a particularly rural area, your options may be somewhat limited for established foundations or company sponsorships. In these instances, the only option left is to fundraise for the team’s needs. While grant-seeking and courting sponsorships share a certain skillset with individual donor development, this practice is admittedly outside of the Grants Office wheelhouse. Whether its setting up a page on DonorsChoose.org, hosting a bake sale, or sending out an end of the year appeals letter to community members – there are a number of ways to solicit individual donations from your community. Be creative and cast a wide net to increase your odds of meeting your funding goals.

For the Future?

Esports is still relatively in its nascency in the eyes of grant funders. Grant funding for student robotics competitions, by comparison, tends to be much more readily available. This wasn’t always the case though. Established, consistent funding opportunities specifically for FIRST Robotics Competitions has only come about in the last 10 years. Despite FIRST competitions dating back for nearly 30 years, it took time for the field to establish and coalesce around some standard practices. Once that happened, grant funders began to feel more confident that the program to which they were investing (by granting funds to a team) wasn’t for naught.

Therefore, remember – while dedicated grant opportunities for Esports teams don’t appear to be prevalent now, this may not always be the case. The grant funding landscape, while slow to change, is still ever evolving. In a few years we may see the scales tip in favor of Esports with more private funders (and maybe even a couple public funders) being willing to invest in such projects on a larger scale. It just takes time.

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