In what might be a first, the NCAA passed up an opportunity to oversee the championships of a fast-growing and big-money collegiate sport. In fact, it opted not to govern it at all. And that puts collegiate esports in the enviable position of being able to continue allowing third-party organizations to establish leagues and competitions for which monetary prizes are offered.
The news was carried in The Esports Observer and came after the NCAA spent nearly 18 months exploring the topic with Intersport, a Chicago-based consultancy firm. Although originally, NCAA had been extremely interested in esports, even going so far as to contemplate in which season(s) it should be contested, it ultimately decided to table the issue.
According to TEO, “Some of the biggest challenges facing the NCAA’s adoption of college esports included how and whether Title IX regulations would impact participation and scholarships, as well as how the NCAA would determine eligibility rules given the prize money typically offered via competition.”
Collegiate esports already has its own framework and is growing exponentially. The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) is a nonprofit membership association of colleges offering esports programs and is the only association of varsity esports programs at colleges and universities (more than 130 of them, in fact) across the U.S. NACE has identified $15 million in esports scholarships and aid, hosts a national convention and offers a private discord server (voice-over software) for athletic directors, coaches and others. And Riot Games has announced it is creating a standalone governing body for its collegiate League of Legends.The new organization is expected to be owned and run solely by the publisher, but structured as a separate division similar to that of the 13 professional esports leagues, including Riot’s League of Legends Champions Series (LCS) and League of Legends European Championship (LEC).
Esports games such as League of Legends and Rocket League have official collegiate leagues, while companies such as Tespa and ESPN have held competitions. In fact, ESPN held its first Collegiate Esports Championship in Houston this month, with 22 qualified teams from 20 schools competing in such games as Overwatch and Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition. And make no mistake: colleges are seeking out gamers. Earlier in the spring, Union County College (New Jersey) hosted an esports combine, allowing high school esports players to be scouted by college and university coaches.
The NCAA’s decision is the best possible outcome, according to industry experts. In fall 2018, when the issue was still under active consideration, Bryce Blum, founding partner of ESG Law, which represents many top American teams, told TEO that while the NCAA had the power to organize competitions and championships, it might be counterproductive to the sport at that level, since it didn’t actually fit the framework of the NCAA’s other offerings.
Standard amateurism restrictions would be out of the question, Blum said, noting, “The biggest fear within the esports community is that the NCAA will simply apply existing rules, regulations and norms to esports, and if that happens, the impact on the rapid growth and development of the collegiate esports ecosystem could be catastrophic.”
While the NCAA has voted to table the issue, there is the possibility it will come up again. Esports already attracts an enormous amount of outside money, with companies like Nike, Reebok and Puma sponsoring athletes and teams. Its economic impact as an industry continues to grow and research indicates it isn’t slowing down any time soon. Even ESPN The Magazine has featured esports sensation Ninja on its cover.
And with the market growing, tournaments generating enormous economic impact and more colleges adding esports programs (some are even cutting longstanding majors that no longer attract students), it’s simply too lucrative a market for NCAA to stay away from for long. Count on it to come under study again, sooner rather than later.