Editor's Note: As the NCAA board of directors meets this week to consider regulation and/or support of varsity esports competitions, we looked at the various issues surrounding the increasing number of scholarship-sponsored competitive gaming teams throughout the country. Bryce Blum is the founder of Electronic Sports and Gaming Law, the only esports-centric law firm in the country.
Over the past several years, professional sports teams and private investors have flocked to esports in order to capitalize on a young and rapidly expanding industry. While much has been made of the changes professional esports have undergone -- franchising, increased player salaries and the earliest days of the first esports player associations among them -- considerably less attention has been paid to collegiate esports to date.
That's all about to change.
On Aug. 15, ESPN reported that the NCAA is formally analyzing the state of collegiate esports. Less than two weeks later, it issued a request for proposal (RFP) to obtain industry experts as consultants to help develop an esports plan of action as "part of the NCAA's efforts to engage a younger, more diverse group of fans that will provide a connection and loyalty to higher education and collegiate sports."
Since that report, industry insiders have almost universally condemned the potential for NCAA involvement in esports. I can't remember a single issue in which the esports community has been more united.
But make no mistake -- the NCAA, which is meeting Tuesday to continue that conversation, is coming into esports, whether we like it or not.
Esports are too big, and a large percentage of gamers and esports fans are college age. In contrast to many stick-and-ball sports, fielding an esports team does not require a school to build expensive stadiums or sacrifice academic standards. This is why nearly 50 colleges and universities already offer some form of esports scholarship, a number that is growing too quickly for the NCAA to continue to ignore.
I think it's fair to say that the NCAA is a controversial body in sports for a reason, and I share many of the concerns raised since August surrounding the organization as a governing body for collegiate esports. The NCAA's amateurism restrictions are hypocritical, and often nonsensical. There are Title IX issues to consider, a seemingly unending stream of lawsuits filed by current and former collegiate athletes against the NCAA muddying the waters, and I'm not eager to have such a significant bureaucracy in a position to potentially hinder the growth of esports.
There are also some phenomenal things going on in collegiate esports heading into 2018, and I certainly don't want to see that progress set back. Events are regularly improving in structure, viewership and production value. More games are attracting meaningful collegiate competitions. Esports programs are also embracing the concept of the student-athlete in an unprecedented manner, creating entire curricula around the program that educate scholarship recipients on the business side of the industry and help them develop the skills to join the esports workforce as soon as they graduate.
While the programs themselves have evolved, so too has the underlying regulation of their activities. The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), an organically developed governing body for institutions that have given out millions in esports scholarships, is home to most varsity programs nationwide. Students are actively involved in the process, and there is real buy-in for the growing body of regulation.
Yet, despite these positive trends, collegiate esports remain underdeveloped in comparison to the professional scene. While competitions have improved and events like Heroes of the Dorm crown a national champion in a given game, we're a long way from maintaining truly national, well-organized competitions in many of the biggest esports. If the ultimate dream is simply for each school to have one team that represents it in each game, we're still a long way from that goal.
Moreover, while NACE boasts nearly 50 members that offer some form of esports scholarship, esports have yet to be adopted by the majority of top-tier institutions. In fact, some of them haven't been accepting of esports at all and have prevented club-level teams from using school logos in competitions or acting as official representatives. It's also worth noting that these scholarships often flow through academic programs instead of receiving full institutional buy-in and becoming part of the university's athletic departments.
In short, collegiate esports may have good bones, but it lacks rules, regulations and enforcement mechanisms that apply to all games and all schools.
These are areas in which the NCAA could add enormous value.
For all that can be criticized about the NCAA, it is also the only regulatory body in a position to affect change across the entire collegiate sports landscape. Perhaps most importantly, the NCAA's first move wasn't to simply apply existing rules and regimes to esports; it was to ask for help in learning about the esports space in order to decide upon the best course of action. This fact, above all, has me cautiously optimistic about the inevitable entry of the NCAA into esports.
Rather than simply jumping into the deep end of the pool, the NCAA recognizes that the challenges associated with collegiate esports are unique, and tackling them requires more than a cursory understanding of the ecosystem.
For example, the concept of NCAA amateurism simply will not work in the context of esports. While it would never occur to the organizer of an AAU basketball tournament to offer a cash prize because doing so would jeopardize the college eligibility of the players, such prizes are commonplace in weekend esports tournaments.
Players also generate revenue from live streaming their game play on sites such as Twitch, an issue that was tackled in early August by the NCAA when it ruled that UCF football player Donald De La Haye was ineligible to continue playing because he refused to stop monetizing his athletic-related YouTube videos. The same thing happened to Ryan Trahan, a track and field athlete at Texas A&M, in late September. This may be uncommon in traditional sports, but in esports it's the norm. Moreover, the prime of an esports player tends to be earlier than for most traditional sports, creating a far more common path of professional esports players who retire and go back to college.
The NCAA must learn these nuances before acting, and the RFP should help it identify industry insiders who are able to help them do just that. Of course, the NCAA could hire the wrong consultant, refuse to listen or prove unwilling to adapt sufficiently for collegiate esports to thrive under its auspices. But today is not that day.
Amongst industry insiders, esports is often referred to as the Wild West. The moniker is equal parts loving and derisive. We enjoy the freedom, but we also lament the fragmented infrastructure and the problems that come along with it. While regulation has improved immensely over the past five years, we still have a long way to go.
NACE has already begun this process at the collegiate level, but a well-guided NCAA is unmatched in its potential to springboard its development. I'm skeptical of whether that potential will come to fruition, but the NCAA is coming.
I'd rather the esports industry try to be part of the solution than sit on the sidelines.
- This op-ed was prepared with the help of Electronic Sports and Gaming Law attorney Harris M. Peskin.