Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, is the first all-women's school to announce a varsity esports program, supported with scholarships. According to ESPN, the program will begin in spring of 2017, and the team will compete in the Tespa Collegiate Series for Overwatch. According to the Stephens College website, Overwatch was "selected because of its diverse and strong female characters".
Image via James Cao/Flickr
Similar programs have also launched at mixed-gender universities across the US. Earlier this month, the University of Utah became the first Power Five school to launch a League of Legends varsity esports program. In recent years, the University of Pikeville in Kentucky and Robert Morris College in Chicago have launched esports scholarship programs as well.
Since Stephens College is a women's school, their Overwatch team will be all-female as well, making it the first all-female student esports team. All-female esports teams do exist, particularly in competitive Counter-Strike, although gender segregation is not required in esports. Stephanie Harvey, a player for CLG Red's all-female Counter-Strike team, told Kotaku that she considers women's leagues and female-only tournaments to be a "stepping stone" towards more gender parity in high-level competitive gaming, rather than the end goal. Heather "sapphiRe" Garozzo, a backup player for Team Karma, echoed the "stepping stone" phrasing and elaborated,
I don't want to see a day where all leagues and tournament organisers move towards women's only events… I long for a day where a woman plays and performs well on a tier one or two team, but that day is a while off due to the scene still being drastically smaller than the pool of male competitors.
One way to increase that talent pool could be to enlist young female competitors through student leagues at all-female colleges. Stephens College president Dianne Lynch put it this way to ESPN:
Our mission is to ensure that women can succeed and can make choices about anything they do in any environment and in any profession. That's our mission. So why would we not do it in esports? ... 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.
The Stephens College Overwatch team will recruit 12 players: A six-person starting team and a six-person bench of alternates. The students chosen will receive partial scholarships and access to the same benefits that other university athletes receive from Stephens, who compete in the NAIA.
Tryouts commence this winter.