NACE announces partnership with NJCAA

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)

The National Association of Collegiate Esports announced a partnership Tuesday with the National Junior College Athletic Association that recognizes NACE as the governing body for esports at the collegiate level among all NJCAA members.

This is the second such partnership for NACE, which is also recognized as the governing body for varsity esports by the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics, or NAIA. There's just one acronym missing from the picture now for a group that, since forming in July 2016, has facilitated the creation of scholarship-sponsored esports programs at more than 70 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada.

"I think it's pretty clear now with NACE partnering with the NAIA and NJCAA, there's one group missing in that dynamic, and that's the NCAA. We would love to see a partnership there," NACE executive director Michael Brooks said. "We intensely believe it's going to take support from everyone for esports to be successful, and we also are quite clear that there are no easy answers right now, so it's going to take that support in order to come to solutions that make sense for everyone."

Just like the NAIA, NJCAA does not have to alter its bylaws but can still offer support for its institutions that decide to sponsor varsity esports, regardless of if a school houses it under student affairs or its athletics department. It's a workaround that's particularly helpful when dealing with the amateurism in college athletics.

Unlike traditional athletics associations, NACE has no bylaws that prevent an esports player from making money on the side or off his or her likeness. There are no big money-makers in college esports right now at the individual level, but making money off Twitch subscribers won't put a player's scholarship at risk, either.

From the all-digital nature of the competitions to relying on the intellectual property of big businesses, nothing about esports fits well with a traditional athletics handbook, Jim Carr, the CEO and president of the NAIA said. That's why the NAIA supported NACE at first as a research endeavor. And that more traditional take on sports, he noted, has come under scrutiny because of the debate about amateurism, which is once again at the forefront of college athletics discussion as March Madness begins in earnest.

An FBI investigation and reports from ESPN and Yahoo! Sports in February identified dozens of college men's basketball programs that have potentially violated NCAA rules. Meanwhile, the NCAA itself reported revenues in excess of $1 billion for 2017 in a March 7 report, the first time the organization crossed the billion-dollar threshold, with $761 million of that 2017 money coming from selling its rights for the men's basketball championships.

And yet, under NCAA rules, a football player can't make money off of YouTube videos -- ask former UCF kicker Donald De La Haye, who lost his eligibility because he chose to keep his channel. The NCAA has also faced a series of lawsuits for profiting off of the likenesses of current and former athletes.

"My belief is that if people could go back and think about traditional sports in a different way ... if we could go back decades or a number of years, we may have come at this differently," Carr said. "To burden esports with some of the difficulties that traditional sports is going through right now, to me, if you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, that doesn't make a lot of sense."

The NJCAA partnership, its CEO Chris Parker said, is about a half-year in the making. And when he started talking with NACE, Parker learned that several junior colleges were already members of the esports organization.

"We know that esports is a fast and growing opportunity for colleges and college students all over the country," Parker said. "I am a lot more fluent about it now than I was six months ago."

And although the NCAA hasn't bitten on a partnership, there are plenty of NACE ties to the organization.

Eight Division I institutions in the U.S. have scholarship-sponsored esports programs, and there are 28 NCAA affiliates overall with varsity esports teams.

Additionally, the NCAA hired Intersport, and its executive director of esports, Kurt Melcher, to advise the organization on the growth of esports; Melcher founded the first varsity esports program in the U.S. at Robert Morris University and is on NACE's board of directors.

A representative of the NCAA's national office was also at a recent summit at NACE member Grand View University for esports coaches and directors, Brooks said. And Brooks himself has had informational meetings with members of Power Five conferences, including 11 members of the Big 12 thanks to its men's basketball tournament taking place near NACE's headquarters in Kansas City -- despite the conference's athletics commissioner, Bob Bowlsby, calling esports "a misnomer" back in December at the Learfield Intercollegiate Athletics Forum.

The amateurism question came up, Brooks said. In time, he thinks the NACE, through its partnership with organizations like the NAIA and NJCAA - and, perhaps eventually, the NCAA - could help create a new model for all athletes. But for now, barring traditional organizations tearing up their rulebooks, communication and working together is the biggest step.

The way NACE does things might change, too. Brooks said he knows there's plenty of room for his organization to improve and that esports is changing constantly, both at the player and institutional level.

"I think there's intense questions right now on whether the current model of traditional athletics is right or wrong," Brooks said. "I think right now, esports represents the potential for a different model in traditional athletics, a model where you certainly would still have student-athletes, traditional support by the institutions, but they could still go out and interact with the community on their own with their own time and own resources."