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As NCAA Continues to Ignore Esports, Other Organizations Forge Ahead

12 Sep, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

While NCAA dithers about whether or not to recognize esports, other collegiate organizations are moving full speed ahead. The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) has not only announced that it would begin working toward hosting championships in esports, it has begun making sponsorship arrangements to do so.

NJCAA Esports (NJCAAE) and Generation Esports (GenE, the overarching entity behind North America's largest competitive esports organization for high schools, the High School Esports League) have announces the formation of a new strategic partnership where GenE will become the NJCAAE's Official Esports platform partner.

GenE will assist NJCAAE with the onboarding process of schools, teams and players, provision of game play rules, and administration of competition and branding tournaments. The NJCAAE continues to add more members to their esports platform as both organizations will host regular season competitions leading to national championships in the fall and spring semesters. In addition, GenE will enable the NJCAAE to provide in-depth statistics and leaderboards for teams competing in the leagues.

And just in case you’re wondering, in only two semesters of competition, NJCAAE has seen involvement from more than 60 schools.

In the meantime, we don’t know why NCAA is so far behind. The National Christian College Athletic Association (NCAA) is also working to get on board and has announced Uni Esports as its preferred vendorIn an era where more than 70 percent of all colleges (four-year and two-year) have stated that they are considering an esports program on some level, and where the still-young National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) has 180 institutions of higher educations as members (approximately 25 of those are two-year institutions, according to NACE), it’s obvious the sport is on the uptick. The pandemic has made gaming grow further, and it remains one of the few sports that can be contested in isolation.

"All of our members are varsity organizations, which we loosely define as esports programs with an gaming facility for practice and competition and a paid staff member acting as head coach, director, or coordinator for esports," notes Patrick Ocampo, director of membership at NACE. "This is distinguished from club programs, where the students are in charge of the organization with only a staff advisor present."

Last year, a report, published by Extreme Networks and eCampus News, provided some insights into the esports landscape at the collegiate level that give event owners and destinations good reason to get on the stick:

  • More schools are using scholarships to attract esports talent: 20 percent of schools say they are already offering scholarships and financial aid to encourage students with esports experience to apply and enroll; and another 67 percent say they are considering it.
  • In one in five schools, an esports program is already in place
  • Only nine percent of schools surveyed found a lack of interest in esports
  • It’s not as expensive as some might think; 69 percent of schools with esports programs estimated the annual cost to be less than $10,000
  • At the school level, League of Legends and Overwatch are the most popular games, as 81 percent of schools involved in esports compete in League of Legends and 50 percent compete in Overwatch, followed by Fortnite with 37 percent. Others with frequent mentions include FIFA, Hearthstone, Dragonball Fighter Z, Rocket League, andSuper Smash Brothers

In fact, many of the student/athlete software platforms (previously limited to helping students connect with schools and coaches who were recruiting for sports like cheer, lacrosse and soccer) are now listing esports programs, and noting the scholarship money available. Among these are NCSA (Next College Student Athlete), GYO Score and a host of others.

NBC News recently noted that in the 2018-19 school year, some 200 colleges in the U.S. offered $16 million in esports scholarships, more than a threefold increase since 2015. Looking to boost enrollment and keep up with the latest tech-industry trend, colleges are plucking recruits from online gaming platforms as teams continue to spring up in high schools everywhere. The National Federation of State High School Associations also offers an esports program.

Competitions can also bring in big money. Just last year, the grounds that typically host the US Open saw a sellout crowd who came to watch the Fortnite World Cup. And when the dust cleared, the 16-year-old winner of the event took home the grand prize of $3 million. Second and third place were $1.8 million and $1.05 million, respectively. And every qualifier took home $50,000.

The scope of players also continues to broaden. According to Inside The Games, esports is set to make its International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation (IWAS) World Games debut in December in Thailand. (In addition, Earlier the International Esports Federation (IESF) announced that its World Championship will take place this year in Eilat in Israel, between December 6 and 12.

The lone holdout in the evolutionary chain continues to be NCAA, which, back in May of last year, decided to table discussions of esports, having explored the topic for 18 months without coming to a decision.

According to reports at the time, the NCAA said it would be challenging to adopt esports in light of Title IX regulations. Additionally, there was the question of how and whether the NCAA would determine eligibility rules given the prize money typically offered in competitions presently. (This led to much online snark from gamers who were caught between relief over not having to deal with the NCAA – and disbelief that the NGB was turning its back on a sport that had already proven how lucrative it was).

The objections presented by the NCAA haven’t really held water, however. When NCAA president Mark Emmert noted that the overwhelming majority of gamers were male, SB Nation was quick to point out, “nearly 100 percent of football players are male and the NCAA’s cool with that.”

Another of Emmert’s objections had to do with violence in many games. However, said SB Nation, “Emmert using game-related violence as an argument against the NCAA having esports would be more convincing if NCAA schools didn’t make tens of millions of dollars apiece every year broadcasting games where unpaid players take actual blows to the head.”

Ultimately, SB Nation noted, it wasn’t gender parity or violence that was the stumbling block; it was a total lack of knowledge and an inability to govern:

“The NCAA has no apparent expertise in how to administer esports, and this is not typically an organization you’d want getting involved in something it knows little about. Right now, schools and game developers set the terms for college esports events, and they’re probably much better at it than the NCAA would be if it suddenly had a role in organizing them.”

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 last year. 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.

“It may be a while before a school’s Overwatch team is as well recognized on campus as the basketball team, but there’s no doubt that the popularity of esports is rising fast,” noted Forbes. “The good news is that getting a team up and running is fairly manageable, and there are plenty of resources out there to help.”

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