They Got Game

June 5, 2018

More than 60 colleges and universities have formed varsity esports programs, most in the last 18 months. How do the games fit in an athletic department? And what is involved in their oversight?

 

By Dennis Read & David Stern

 

Dennis Read is an Associate Editor and David Stern is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. They can be reached at: dread@MomentumMedia.com and dstern@MomentumMedia.com.

 

 

The numbers are hard to ignore. More than 200 million people in the U.S. play esports and two-thirds of American households include a gamer. At least 100 million people worldwide watched the 2017 League of Legends World Championships. The global audience for esports is expected to exceed 380 million this year.

Then there’s the money. Global esports revenues were estimated at a shade under $700 million in 2017, an increase of 41 percent over 2016. They are forecast to reach $1.4 billion in 2020. Professional esports leagues are selling franchises for $10 million or more, with the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, and New England Patriots a few of the buyers. This month, the NBA is launching the 2K League, based on the 2K video game, with 17 of its franchises fielding teams at a reported cost of $750,000 each for three years.

Delving into demographics, there is just one data point to know. In the U.S., nearly one third of esports fans are in the 18-24 age group.

What do all these facts and figures mean for today’s college athletic directors? Clearly, esports is not a fringe fad to be ignored. Whether there is an organized esports group at your school or not, hundreds—thousands at large universities—of students are playing or watching esports in their dorm rooms around the clock.

“Esports players and fans are already on your campus,” says Michael Brooks, Executive Director of the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE). “Every school needs to figure out what it wants to do with esports because there will be teams representing their school with or without their involvement.”

“It’s not a matter of if esports will reach the level of traditional sports, it’s when,” Randy Sieminski, Athletic Director at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Canton said during an ECAC Panel discussion on esports in March. “It may be five years, 10 years, or 20 years, but it’s inevitable. I know that’s not a popular answer with some old school athletic directors. But it doesn’t take away from traditional sports. It only enhances the institution, and we can all live happily together.”

 

NUTS & BOLTS

Because esports is still in its infancy, there’s no set definition beyond “competitions involving video games.” Typically, teams of four to six players go head to head in an online battle in which each competitor controls a character with different roles and abilities. The most popular titles in collegiate esports are League of Legends (LoL), Defense of the Ancients (Dota) 2, and Heroes of the Storm. Sports simulation games, like NBA2K, are gaining in popularity, but have yet to establish a significant foothold in the college ranks.

The number of teams and games played as part of a school’s esports program varies greatly. They are often structured like crew programs with separate squads for each game. Esports is also extremely scalable, with many programs offering sub-varsity or developmental squads. Some schools even have both a varsity esports team and a larger, less-competitive, club program.

Professionalism in collegiate esports remains a question. While some schools limit their teams to amateurs, most collegiate competitions do not bar those who have earned money from the sport. This can include not only those who have won prize money, but many non-elite players who stream their game play on platforms like YouTube and receive ad revenues based on the number of viewers.

“Amateurism is a hot topic that our member institutions are actively debating,” Brooks says. “The question is whether esports should look like traditional athletics or embrace a different model.”

Typically, competitions are held over the Internet with both teams playing at their home facilities. But the largest, most prestigious contests are in-person events with players from both teams sharing a stage and a large screen video display for spectators. Whether contested remotely or in-person, most events are streamed online for fans to watch on sites like Twitch.

Unlike traditional sports, each game is owned by a publisher, which can restrict how competitions are held as well as how footage from the games is used. So far, that has not posed a large problem for schools, but it does require a different mindset. “Imagine if the Naismith family owned basketball and you had to work with them to be able to hold a game or tournament,” explains Brooks.

Because of this wrinkle, aligning with others is important in esports. Brooks’ group, NACE, is positioning itself as the organizing body for varsity collegiate teams and has agreements with the NAIA and NJCAA. (NACE is actually a spin-off of the NAIA, which originally considered sponsoring esports itself before realizing the number of changes—largely those regarding amateurism—needed to its bylaws. Brooks serves as Director of Strategic Partnerships at the NAIA.) Key parts of NACE’s role involve negotiating agreements with game publishers, offering structure and legitimacy to collegiate esports, hosting tournaments, and setting up rules for member organizations to follow.

But NACE is far from the only oversight group. Tespa, which was started in 2012 as the Texas eSports Association by four University of Texas students, now has a partnership with major game publisher Blizzard Entertainment, and the Collegiate Starleague has over 30,000 players across 900 schools. In some cases, game publishers put on competitions and serve as the organizing body. Whichever entity is overseeing the event controls the rules—such as who is eligible to play—along with the organization and execution of the tournament. The largest events often offer scholarship money for the top finishers.

More recently, college conferences have been dipping their toes in the water. The Big East held a pilot event with some of its schools in March, while the ECAC teamed with the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) to hold a four-team exhibition tournament, along with panel discussions, as part of the MAAC FanFest during its 2018 men’s basketball tournament. The Big Ten Network recently completed a second season of its League of Legends competition, which includes all 14 conference schools. And the NCAA Division II Peach Belt Conference held an inaugural esports tournament this spring. In these competitions, the majority of teams are not a part of their college’s athletic department, even though athletic conference administrators are involved.

And that introduces one of the biggest questions in esports: Should it be housed in the athletic department? So far, the answer from large schools is no, while smaller schools are saying yes. More than 60 colleges have formed “varsity” esports programs, most of them coming in the last 18 months, but those overseen by athletic departments are primarily found at NAIA and NCAA Division III schools. Of the NCAA Division I institutions with varsity esports programs, none are operated through athletics.

“Smaller schools often use esports as recruitment and enrollment tools, similar to the way they use traditional sports,” says MAAC Commissioner Rich Ensor. “An esports team is scalable and you can have several levels of teams in many different games. Division I athletic directors have their hands full with traditional sports, and esports is viewed as another activity that will be competing for resources.”

 

NOT MY TEAM

In May of 2016, the Pac-12 seemed primed to be the first major NCAA Division I conference to welcome esports to its athletic programs. After its year-end meetings, the league announced it would hold esports competitions through the Pac-12 Networks that fall. Those plans, however, never came to fruition.

The conference did not offer any formal explanation as to why it dropped its esports initiative. However, as reported on the gaming website Kotaku, an email from Ann Weaver Hart, President of the University of Arizona at that time, indicated the Pac-12 had concerns over Title IX, sexism in the video game world, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and amateurism. “If the Pac-12 becomes a sort of ‘mini-NCAA’ for the e-Sports leagues and tournaments, this could potentially trigger the same anti-trust and other hurdles that the NCAA deals with now but without some of the justifications that the NCAA uses in those cases (e.g., the long-standing tradition of amateurism in college sports),” she wrote.

According to SportsTechie, in December 2017, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby summed up the decision of those at the top tier to not embrace esports in this manner: “First of all, it’s a misnomer. It isn’t sports. And so therefore, it looks very different than what we do every day. I can’t think of a single motivation to get involved in it other than the money, and I just am sort of lost in the conversation of it because if we wanted to make money, I guess we could get into real estate development and we could get into other things that are misaligned with our core business.”

Although Ensor supports the idea of varsity esports, he also believes it is better situated outside the athletic realm. “It may not always be a good fit to put esports under the traditional athletic department,” he says. “Gender equity is a concern in some departments and you have potential compliance issues because some events allow professionals. Even if it’s not an NCAA sport, many schools require all their athletic teams to follow NCAA rules, which brings in initial and continuing eligibility standards. I think it’s often better to leave esports under the club sports structure than deal with all of that.”

However, that doesn’t mean large-scale athletic departments can wipe their hands clean of the issue. At many D-I schools, esports teams have been or will be started by other campus entities, and the athletic department will be asked to play a role.

For example, despite the Pac-12’s pullback from sponsoring the sport, students from 11 of the league’s 12 schools formed the Pacific Alliance of Collegiate Gamers (PACG) and held its first season of competition this spring. “Student esports groups all across the country are in great need of support from universities that may not understand what they are trying to accomplish,” Jack Callahan, a University of Colorado student and PACG Co-Commissioner, said in a press release announcing its formation.

The University of Utah was one of the schools that eagerly joined the PACG. It put a varsity team in place in April 2017, run through the school’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering program. Each player receives a $1,000-per-year scholarship and has access to support services in the form of athletic trainers, sports psychologists, and nutritionists who are graduate students at Utah.

AJ Dimick, Utah’s Director of Operations for Esports, has leaned heavily on the athletic department as he has gotten the team up and running. “We’ve had their counsel on development, compliance, facilities coordination, and a lot of other areas that they know dramatically more about than we do,” he says. “They’ve given us their ear anytime we’ve wanted to talk, and that has helped us out a lot.”

Ensor is encouraging athletic directors at MAAC schools to do the same. “I’m advising them to acknowledge esports and to be open to having the teams on campus,” he says. “Help them with logistical support such as scheduling and conference relations. See if they have any questions about recruiting or what to look for in a coach. Assist with the branding so it’s consistent with the institutional brand. Help with their broadcast efforts—all of our conference schools have on-campus production facilities for our ESPN3 broadcasts that could be used by the esports programs as well.”

He also believes there can be a synergy with esports that will benefit athletics. By engaging with its fans and participants, schools can add to their fan base instead of dividing it. “Reach out to the esports programs,” Ensor says. “Promote them at your events, and ask them to promote your events. Invite them to attend your games and maybe recognize them in front of the crowd. Anything you can do to engage more students will help your attendance grow, and esports is one avenue to do that.”

Dimick concurs. “By embracing esports, athletic departments can get more students to engage with the rest of the athletic community,” he says. “The esports audience tends to think of themselves as the counterculture, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

“We had a lot of students who could reel off the statistics of their favorite professional gamer but couldn’t say if our football team went 0-12 or 12-0 last year,” Dimick continues. “Now that we’ve put the school colors on them and done all we can to make them part of the cultural identity of our campus, they are invested in those things. They identify with the school in ways they didn’t before.”

 

UNDER ATHLETICS

For many smaller schools, having athletics oversee esports is seen as a natural fit. Brooks estimates that about 40 percent of NACE members operate their esports programs through the athletic department. One leader of the charge is Robert Morris University Illinois, which was the first university in the U.S. to offer varsity scholarships to esports athletes in 2014.

“Being part of athletics makes a lot of sense because an esports team has the same needs as any other team,” says Kurt Melcher, Executive Director of Esports at Robert Morris, an NAIA school. “In the athletic department, there are administrators who work with teams everyday. They already know how to schedule, manage facilities, and provide the resources teams need.

“When esports is set up through student services, you’re running duplicate systems,” he continues. “It makes logistical sense to place it in athletics because it fits into everything that the department is doing already.”

Brett Adams, Athletic Director at Stevenson University, an NCAA Division III school that recently added a varsity esports team, agrees. “People ask me if it’s a sport or not, and I tell them, ‘I don’t know and I don’t care,’ because the important question is whether it belongs in athletics,” he said during the ECAC/MAAC panel discussion. “There’s nobody on campus who understands competition better than we do, or marketing or branding or recruiting and retention—not to mention the spectators and the engagement esports can create. I have no doubt that it belongs in athletics. I see the value it adds to the campus and to the students. I’m always looking for ways for athletics to add value to the institution. Otherwise, why are we here?”

The same thinking is shared at Defiance College, which announced in March its plans to have a varsity team ready to compete by the 2018-19 academic year. “Rather than putting it under student life, we thought it would be better in athletics so we could foster that competitive atmosphere,” says Interim Athletic Director Jodie Holava. “Gamers are athletes too. They utilize the same critical thinking skills, teamwork, communication, and strategy that all of our athletes engage in on a daily basis—even if it’s less physical in nature. We wanted them to be part of our culture.”

When an athletic department does decide to house an esports program, the first step is choosing the games the athletes will play and deciding how many teams and games to offer. It can be helpful to find out which active esports groups are on campus already and what games are being played by peer institutions. In starting its program, Defiance hosted two open sessions to ask students what video games were most popular on campus.

Another initial step is hiring coaches, who perform many similar duties to traditional coaches, such as providing hands-on instruction and implementing strategies. Schools are finding many of their coaches in former professional gamers—most retire in their mid-20s when reaction times and physical abilities decline. Robert Morris, which has 89 students participating in six gaming titles, employs eight coaches, and players have access to athletic support staff, such as athletic trainers and sports psychologists.

Building a team has also proven to be fairly straightforward. In some cases, schools are simply putting the word out on campus, and students come out of the woodwork. That was the case at SUNY-Canton, which added a varsity esports team a year ago.

“When you start a new volleyball or golf team, you have to recruit student-athletes,” Sieminski said during the ECAC/MAAC panel discussion. “We already had great League of Legends players on campus, more than I ever thought. We didn’t have to go out and recruit because our team members were already here. We’ve added six teams to our athletic department in the past few years, and esports was by far the quickest and easiest.”

For those programs interested in recruiting top players, finding talent is a few clicks away. “Each game has a leader board or a tiered system where you can see where players are ranked or rated,” Melcher explains. “To start, our coaches created a collegiate recruiting account and messaged people to tell them about what we’re doing and what we can offer. It’s a digital version of making that first contact with a recruit.”

From there, Robert Morris followed its usual process. “Just like with traditional sports, the most valuable step is having players come to campus to take a tour,” says Melcher. “They meet the team and the coach, see what the school and the environment are like, and talk with some professors.”

Schools have to decide whether to offer scholarships, which may or may not follow what they do with traditional student-athletes. Robert Morris provides two levels of scholarships. Varsity athletes receive 70 percent of tuition, which equals around $21,000, and a j.v. scholarship is 35 percent tuition, roughly $11,000. 

Defiance will also offer scholarships, even though it is an NCAA Division III school. Since esports is not an NCAA sanctioned sport, it is not bound by its rules, Holava explains. This only becomes problematic if an athlete on another varsity team also wants to play on the esports team. In that case, the athlete would not be eligible for an esports scholarship.

In terms of facilities, Robert Morris has constructed a dedicated esports arena and hosts many competitions. Defiance chose a spot on its campus that could grow with the program. “We considered aesthetics and location, and found a space that already had the necessary hardwiring and electrical components, as well as safety and security monitoring because of the equipment that will be in the room,” Holava says.

Melcher believes the most important aspect of having a successful program is fully blending it with the rest of athletics. “For example, providing esports athletes with athletic department logos and gear helps close the traditional sports and esports gap,” he says. “Our traditional sport athletes have embraced esports and don’t view it as too dissimilar because they are able to see the dedication and effort it takes to be a varsity esports athlete. They can identify with the commitment and discipline required to compete and improve.” 

 

HOSTING A TOURNAMENT

Another way athletic departments are getting involved in esports is by hosting tournaments. This is typically happening at the conference level.

In March, the Peach Belt Conference held its inaugural League of Legends Championship, in which 10 of its 12 schools entered teams. From January to March, the squads faced off against each other remotely with the top eight finishers advancing to a tournament hosted by league member Georgia College. The winner received the same trophy and honors as other sports in the conference, although all teams operate through their schools’ student affairs division.

Collaborating with many others on campus, Georgia College Athletic Director Wendell Staton helped run the event. “Our conference made a great decision to get out in front of this,” he says. “When there was a chance to host a conference tournament, we were happy to do so. We’re certainly pleased to be at the forefront as a conference and an institution.”

Georgia College decided to situate the event in its Magnolia Ballroom, a historic auditorium with ample seating and a large screen and stage. “In terms of logistics, it’s not like other sports where you have to worry about weather, referees, and doing a lot to set-up or maintaining facilities,” Staton explains. “The main things you need are working computers, tables, chairs, and enough bandwidth.”

That’s where the IT department comes in. According to Staton, they were the most important people in the process of setting up for the event. Along with making sure there is adequate bandwidth for the gamers, they also took care of streaming the matches on Twitch, setting up audio for the announcers, and ensuring the video feed was on a three-minute delay (so players couldn’t be given a competitive advantage).

“IT is critical,” says Staton. “To have a successful esports tournament you need to have a great IT department. They’re the backbone.”

The Peach Belt partnered with Riot Games, which supplied top-of-the-line equipment, including computers, headsets, and gaming chairs. This added to the experience for the gamers and gave the event a big time feel.

Though this was uncharted territory for the Georgia College athletic department, Staton is excited about the opportunities esports presents. “One thing that’s great about esports is that it’s reaching another group on campus that’s getting engaged in student life,” he says. “The more they play and the more we advertise it, the more popular it will become. And its growing popularity nationwide is already staggering.”

 

ESPN.com offers a weekly-updated list of varsity collegiate esports programs, which can be found at this link:

http://bit.ly/AMesports.

 

 

sidebar:

Gender Concerns

Although esports teams are usually co-ed, they are predominantly populated by male students. This can be a stumbling block for college athletic departments that are concerned about male to female athlete ratios related to Title IX.

In addition, there are concerns that the atmosphere in some gaming chat rooms can be hostile toward women. According to Kiernan Ensor, Esports Consultant for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), there are steps schools can take to increase female participation on their esports teams.

“If you have a coach or manager who makes sure it’s not just a ‘boys club,’ you will start to see the female gamers who are on campus come out for the teams,” he says. “This means ensuring there’s no bullying or sexist comments during events and practices.”

ECAC Commissioner Dan Coonan says athletic directors can help this effort by publicizing their esports teams and emphasizing that women are welcome. He adds that his league is looking into possibly hosting separate female-only competitions to encourage more women to join teams.

 

sidebar:

Teaming Up

One way esports differs greatly from other sports is that each title is owned by a publisher, which has rights over the game. That means if a school wants to play a certain game, it has to agree to the publisher’s terms of service or get permission to change them, especially when it comes to holding competitions.

When Robert Morris University began its varsity esports program, it contacted Riot Games. “League of Legends was the game that we started with, so I had to reach out to Riot Games to make sure it was okay with them for us to have a varsity program,” explains Kurt Melcher, Executive Director of Esports at Robert Morris. “It’s their IP [Intellectual Property] and they control what happens with their game.”

Getting permission turned out to be easy. In fact, Riot Games even helped Melcher find the team’s first coach. And League of Legends is free to play, so it didn’t cost Robert Morris anything to get a license.

Kiernan Ensor, Esports Consultant for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, says the need to make agreements with publishers pushes most schools to team up. “Don’t try to do it by yourself,” he says. “A conference or other group can work with the game publishers so you don’t have to. Broadcast rights are something that are typically covered, as is the ability for your champions to advance to bigger national and international events. They can also set eligibility standards, handle scheduling, and organize events, which is a lot tougher to do by yourself.”

Along with looking to your conference for help, groups like the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) and Tespa are other options. The ECAC is sponsoring esports for members as well as nonmembers and encourages schools outside its purview to join.

When examining which group to go with, Ensor suggests starting with the game you plan to play. “Some groups are aligned with certain games, so you want to make sure there’s a match there,” he explains.

From there, he suggests asking potential partners:

• What is the league structure?

• What is the scheduling structure?

• When and how often will the teams play?

• Is there a live in-person championship?

• Is there broadcasting of league events?

“Sometimes the best partner gives you the most value and sometimes it’s whoever is easiest to work with,” Ensor says. “It really depends on the school and what you’re trying to do.”

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