College esports gets big boost from February events, announcements

Mark Deppe discusses the growth of varsity esports (4:36)

UC Irvine's program director talks about how the Anteaters got their start as a varsity program and how school support benefits both players and the university. (4:36)

There might not have been dozens of scholarship program announcements, but make no mistake: The past month was one of the busiest in the brief history of college esports.

From tens of thousands of viewers tuning in for Tespa's Fiesta Bowl Overwatch Collegiate National Championship to nearly half a million dollars entering the esports lifestyle space via the FYGxReKTGlobal Scholarship Program, from Shadow.gg's buy-in to provide analytics for College League of Legends matches to high school esports organizations partnering with the American Video Game League and National Association of Collegiate Esports, from the MWC to the ECAC and lots of other acronyms (except the NCAA), the developments in February can't be packed into one breath.

Trust us -- we tried.

"It's chaotic, exciting, frantic," NACE executive director Michael Brooks said. "It's great to see all the groups that we've been having conversations with, we've been doing studies with, for the last two years almost see results -- it's almost like we're starting to reach that point of critical mass."

Partnerships ease recruiting pains

Both the AVGL and NACE, two of the major college esports organizations, have built up recruiting platforms to help coaches find players, and vice versa. Victor Suski, the CEO of AVGL, started EsportsRecruiting.org and partnered with Youth Esports of America in an effort to create an easier path from high school play to the college scene.

Brooks made a similar move: His org partnered with BeRecruited, a traditional sports recruiting site well known to NAIA schools and Division II and III programs, and on Tuesday announced a partnership with the High School Esports League.

"There was a clear need for a recruitment platform that could match the capabilities of traditional recruiting programs and go a step further by utilizing game data to rank players," Suski said. "Esportsrecruiting.org combines in-game data with relevant tournament performance to create an accurate ranking system for potential recruits."

Between EsportsRecruiting's YEA partnership and the NACE's partnership with HSEL, more than 8,000 high school students -- and the programs that want those players -- now have easy access to traditional sports-style recruiting tools that didn't even exist a couple of months ago.

"When schools were first launching esports programs, they primarily looked for students from two sources: those students who reached out online through interest forms at our schools' websites or from inquiries from students already on campus," Brooks said. "As our member colleges and universities have started to mature, we've seen a greater investment in resources to identifying and recruiting students to come to your institution specifically to play on your esport teams."

From stats to scholarships, resources expand

Varsity programs are still cropping up almost weekly nationwide -- Brooks said Thursday that he had three schools become official members that afternoon alone -- but the amount of aid still doesn't match the cost of schooling at most institutions.

Find Your Grind and ReKTGlobal announced a partnership Feb. 21 that might cut some of that cost for esports enthusiasts. The groups established a $450,000 scholarship fund that will help bridge the gap between students' passions in esports and their future careers.

"The opportunity to link with ReKT to provide not only the scholarship program for the ecosystem of esports but also to do a deeper dive into the ecosystem, to bring that content into schools, was really the big win for Find Your Grind and what we're doing," Find Your Grind founder Nick Gross said. "We wanted to open up to the entire ecosystem of esports, so we created five different tiers. One of them is specific to gamers, one of them is specific to cosplay designers, one of them is specific to the event and production side."

Scholarships also will be available for students interested in shoutcasting and leading or creating esports clubs on campus, and the FYGxReKTGlobal Scholarship Program will offer at least 25 to 30 scholarships in its first year, the partners said. ReKTGlobal already had dipped into college esports with ReKTUniversity, a consulting service for college administrators about esports, and founder Amish Shah saw an opportunity to do more with this partnership.

"A lot of teachers don't really know how to explain to their kids how to become a video game expert or how to get into the space," Shah said, "or even start to talk about the esports ecosystem."

NACE announced yet another partnership Thursday that might help students once they get to school.

One of the first problems schools run into after forming esports teams is finding a coach or staff that has the toolkit needed to run a program. NACE is trying to provide a solution through its partnership with Gamer Sensei, a platform that provides access to professional-level coaches online.

NACE's partnership will afford member institutions discounts on hourly rates, and the partners also will put on coaching boot camps and seminars to help accelerate understanding of esports on campus among administrators and program leaders.

"We've done really good since starting this association at showing the rationale and the metrics for why an institution should start a varsity program. That's just the beginning of the process, though," Brooks said. "It's frantic growth across the entire space, but it's exciting because that means more resources."

Conferences experiment with LANs

March Madness is well underway, and that goes for college esports, too.

State University of New York at Canton represented the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's esports exhibition Thursday in Albany, New York. It was the first road competition for SUNY Canton, the first varsity program in the state, and a sign of things to come for the ECAC, which will add conference esports play in both League of Legends and FIFA 18 this spring, according to a statement from the conference.

"SUNY Canton is thrilled to be participating in the ECAC's first major esports event," SUNY Canton athletic director Randy B. Sieminski said in a statement. "This will be a great experience for our students to be involved in a first-class competition at a phenomenal venue surrounded by the added excitement of the NCAA Division I basketball conference playoffs."

Brooks said the event is another example of how far college esports have come in a short time, particularly in the eyes of conference administrators.

"They're more willing than ever before, I'd say, to at least put their toe in the water," Brooks said. "These are from conferences that if you asked them a year ago if they'd move into esports, the answer would've been 'no' -- just a flat 'no.'"

Next up is the Mountain West Conference's MW eSports Showdown, which will put on an event from March 8-10 that coincides with its men's and women's basketball tournaments in Las Vegas. Another varsity team, Boise State, will lead the charge for that event and face off against the home squad, UNLV.