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Esports Championships to be Hosted at the JuCo Level - Why is NCAA So Far Behind?

18 Sep, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

NCAA who? Esports continues to permeate the college landscape and the most recent announcement shows the growing phenomenon isn’t going to slow down – no matter how much resistance it might get from those who say it doesn’t belong.

The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA, the NGB for two-year college athletics) has formally announced its onboarding of the sport, and will be sponsoring official national championships.

Just last week, NJCAA debuted NJCAA Esports. This new esports association will provide two-year colleges with governance, competition and official national championships while also providing guidance and positive development for two-year colleges to build and operate esports programs. Competitions begin this fall, with individual colleges participating at the level they choose. 

The effort, a strategic partnership between the NJCAA, Chicago-based Legacy Esports and New York-based EsportsU, a division of Collegiate Sports Management Group (CSMG), is the only national esports association for two-year colleges.

The association will develop rules and eligibility for student participation, in addition to competition schedules which would include online, LAN and national championship events.

"The growth trend of the esports industry has given NJCAA member colleges a remarkable opportunity to create and manage programs, increase enrollment and retention and make a greater positive impact in their communities," said Dr. Christopher Parker, President and CEO of the NJCAA. "The NJCAA, with our partners Legacy Esports and EsportsU, is excited to embark on this historic endeavor to benefit two-year higher education."

Don’t think for a moment that NJCAA is going to be alone in governing esports. With a reported 70 percent of all colleges now considering implementing esports programs, other governing organizations are forming partnerships as well and ramping up their offerings. (That report, published by Extreme Networks and eCampus News, also 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. Other schools are cutting longtime majors in order to add esports.
  • 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

Collegiate esports are on the uptick. The National Association for Collegiate Esports recently noted its membership has increased to more than 150 schools, and that the growth continues. eCampus News says that more than a quarter of U.S. colleges and universities offer at least club-level esports competition, and that the number continues to grow. And most recently, BoomTV acquired the American Video Game League with the stated purpose of using it to grow collegiate esports.

The National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) is also working to get on board. “Literally, we have had two meetings to date on esports and the rapidly growing trend,” says Dan Wood, executive Director. “We are certainly trying to see what and where the NCCAA can engage in this by 2020-21. Actually have two schools already launching efforts on their campus and pushing us to ‘hustle.’”

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

All of which the NJCAA has already recognized – and is using to its advantage. And ultimately, NJCAA has noticed something NCAA seems to be ignoring – the growing public profile and viewership of esports. Under its new arrangement, EsportsU will represent all commercial rights across media, sponsorship, sales, ticketing, e-commerce and advertising for NJCAA Esports.

It isn’t the first time NJCAA has noted a growing phenomenon and taken advantage of it. In May of 2018, the organization announced it would be offering championships in women’s beach volleyball. That was a shrewd move, according to Mary Young, head volleyball coach at Central (Nebraska), Vice President of the NJCAA Volleyball Coaches Association, and Region IX Women's Director – since it could assist two-year colleges with student recruitment.

“The real win is it provides an opportunity for young people who didn’t think about furthering their education or their career skills,” said Young, “There’s an opportunity for an athletic program but it really provides an opportunity for an education to occur."

While the beach volleyball programs obviously skew female, esports presents the opportunity to reach a population that is largely male. It’s not impossible to believe that the adoption of esports is a similarly intelligent choice by NJCAA to reach a new demographic – and help them find their place in a college landscape.

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