The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) is a nonprofit membership association organized by and on behalf of its member institutions, meaning colleges who offer esports programs. Together, its members are developing the structure and tools needed to advance collegiate esports in the varsity space. Members of NACE are collaborating to lay the groundwork in areas such as: Eligibility, Path to Graduation, and Competition and Scholarships. NACE is the only association of varsity esports programs at colleges and universities across the U.S.
NACE is comprised of more than 130 member schools and 3,000-plus athletes. It 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.
Sports Destination Management: Esports is growing tremendously. What kind of numbers are you seeing in membership now as compared to last year?
Victoria Horsley: We have right around 130 members now. I would say this year, that number could hit 150 or more. Last year at this time, we had 70 members. That’s the kind of growth we’re having. I’ve been having nine to 10 inquiries a day.
SDM: NACE recently announced that its next conference will be held this summer in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. What was the reaction to the RFP you put out?
Horsley: We had a great response; we heard back from more than 100 cities in the U.S. and Canada.
SDM: Wow – not even the Olympics are getting that kind of reception these days. What were the defining factors in your selection of Harrisburg?
Horsley: We got such a positive response from the city. One of the key things we have been really happy about is that the mayor is all for it. That’s not something you’d expect to hear, that a mayor would be interested in esports, but he was really excited.
SDM: Is there a certain type of city that seems to be a good host for this kind of convention?
Horsley: Something that is interesting to us is that there have been a lot of smaller cities – Grand Rapids, Grand View – that were all in when it came to esports. That’s not to say we didn’t get a lot of interest from bigger cities as well. One of those was Atlanta, which really is an esports hub.
SDM: What kind of facilities did Harrisburg offer for this meeting?
Horsley: Harrisburg University has great facilities. It also has a very strong esports program. The city is also building a huge esports arena which at 130,000 square feet, will be the biggest in the U.S. when it’s completed.
SDM: Switching gears for a moment, which games are you seeing as the most popular?
Horsley: Our top two are League of Legends and Overwatch. We’ve seen first-person shooter games really climbing in popularity. Other popular games are Hearthstone, Fortnite, Paladins, SMITE and a few others.
SDM: We’ve heard the IOC say they are not in favor of FPS games but would be more inclined to consider games based on actual sports. How popular are those?
Horsley: You’d think the realistic sports games would be more popular at the universities because they represent sports that really are varsity sports that’s not the case. Realistic sports games are sort of unpopular.
SDM: Do esports athletes at the university or college level have to be good in a variety of games?
Horsley: Not necessarily; each game is essentially treated like a different sport. For example, League of Legends is one sport and Fortnite is another, the way baseball is different from basketball. You can have different students who specialize in those games.
SDM: Are the colleges the event owners when it comes to putting on competitions and tournaments?
Horsley: The titles are owned by the publisher of the game and the publisher directs whether it’s organized into competition, for example.
SDM: We have heard a lot about schools offering majors in esports, even cutting longstanding programs in favor of offering more gaming opportunities. Are you seeing an uptick in colleges offering varsity esports programs as a whole?
Horsley: Yes, we have noticed a lot of colleges are moving toward varsity-level competitions, starting in the fall of 2019. Shenandoah University has introduced esports management as a major and we’re seeing more schools overall moving toward putting esports into their academic curriculum.
SDM: Students are gaming for a living?
Horsley: They’re also looking into being broadcasters and commentators for esports coverage programs. Academic programs can really help them do that.
SDM: We’re seeing more news about dedicated esports arenas. What do you think organizers are looking for when they are looking for a venue to host esports events?
Horsley: Esports is a little different from a lot of competition-based events. You’re not focused on huge amounts of space. Your first priority is Internet connectivity. You need an ethernet cord for every computer and you need a connection that is fast enough to keep everything working. A lot of tournaments are sponsored by companies that will provide the computers.
SDM: Is there money involved in prizes? Esports isn’t an NCAA sport so the same rules would likely not apply.
Horsley: It depends on the event. We hosted Dreamhack Atlanta and for each game, we gave away money to the top teams. Other events might give out scholarship money or trophies and some might give out equipment – headsets from the sponsor, that sort of thing.
SDM: Does your office field a lot of calls from schools interested in starting programs of study and people who want to start esports programs at their schools?
Horsley: Yes, and it’s crazy. We have an informational e-mail form on our website people can fill out. I’ve gone through six inquiries today and it’s only noon. We’re going to be hiring for the position of director of membership services because it’s just growing exponentially.