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NACE approves new rules governing college esports programs

The National Association of Collegiate Esports approved several new rules Friday, including establishing an "intent to compete" letter, as it seeks to build itself into an NCAA-like governing body while distinguishing some of its policies from the NCAA. Courtesy of NACE

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- National Association of Collegiate Esports membership approved several bylaws and constitution changes Friday that should allow the organization to better enforce its rules and curb the trend of player poaching between schools.

The new guidelines were put in motion during the NACE National Convention at Harrisburg University this week. The conference, which ran Tuesday through Friday, brought more than 120 NACE member institutions to the Pennsylvania town to hash out rules and regulations for the association.

Forty-two of those members came together on the final day of the convention to confirm NACE's new board of directors, its competition council and decide on the creation of an "intent to compete" letter, which also laid the foundation for NACE's first eligibility enforcement committee.

Chesney Sallee, the vice president of membership value and governance for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, led discussion throughout the week concerning bylaw and constitution changes. NACE was the result of a research project conducted by the NAIA, and the organizations are still closely tied -- NACE operates out of NAIA offices in Kansas City, Missouri.

"It's natural that there's going to be a lot of conversation back and forth because all of the institutions are trying to get it right and trying to make sure that what we establish is feasible for them," Sallee said. "Every campus is different. Every institution is different. So you're trying to figure out what's the right middle balance that everyone can be held accountable to."

This week, NACE continued the process of building itself into an NCAA-like governing body while distinguishing some of its policies from the often-criticized practices of the most powerful college athletics association in the U.S. With the NCAA tabling its exploration of competitive gaming, NACE is positioned to become the strongest voice in the college esports space.

For example, members made amendments to the NACE bylaws to allow schools to distribute prize money earned at third-party tournaments to their players regardless of what kind of scholarship dollars a school provides its competitors. NACE also will not set any additional academic requirements of its own for the time being, instead deferring to what the institution requires of its traditional athletic programs as the standard for esports eligibility.

School and player agency were themes throughout the conference, and the approved constitution and bylaws were intentionally light on specifics.

"It's so easy to say, 'Let's figure out the rule and then force everybody to meet the rule,'" Sallee said. "That doesn't work for certain institutions. At NACE, we have two-year and four-year institutions, and we're talking about undergraduate and graduate students. Rather than saying, 'OK, we're going to create whole different layers for every type of possible student or schools,' we're going to defer to whatever your approach is as the school."

Since its inception in July 2016, NACE has ballooned from six founding members to nearly 150 members. This was just its second national convention and the first time it has given all members the opportunity to sit at the decision-making table in an official capacity.

"When you're coming at it from 80 years' or 100 years' worth of history and rules, you're also confined by all of those rules that have been established over time," Sallee said. "That's actually kind of the fun part: NACE gets to build it in a way that works. You learn from the good and the bad of all those other things we've seen in the NCAA and NAIA."

Intent to compete letter

That's not to say the week was all fun and games. The ITC letter, which will work in similar fashion to the NCAA's national letter of intent, was the most significant and hotly debated subject of the convention, and almost every members-only session went over the allotted time with questions and clarifications on what could be the most important decision to come out of this conference.

Like the NLI, the ITC letter states a student's intention to play for a school and is a binding agreement between the school and competitor. In their current form, ITCs will require annual renewal, with a player having five calendar years of eligibility from the time they sign their first ITC. That clock will not stop for any reason as it is written; NACE does not yet have eligibility exemption procedures -- like a redshirt year that allows college football players to sit out from competing for one year.

A vote to strike the time limit from the ITC failed 22-19 with one voter abstaining. ITCs will be required of NACE competitors beginning Aug. 1, 2020, and schools can begin signing students on Feb. 1, 2020. The to-be-created eligibility enforcement committee will handle all cases involving potential breaches of that contract between students and schools as well as academic violations.

Drury University esports coach Michael Jones is one of the 19 who voted to remove the time restriction on the ITC. Despite that measure failing, he said he is overall very pleased with the results of a lengthy week of legislation.

"For the longest time, NACE was just basically offering as an office staff," said Jones, who was confirmed as a member of the NACE competition council Friday. "There's still discord. We're not perfectly unified yet, but we're on our way there. This is the most democratic NACE has been, and all the members have a voice now."

Working with parties outside of NACE

The ITC will be a binding agreement between NACE institutions, too: NACE members will not be permitted to recruit another NACE institution's player if that player has signed an ITC. However, non-NACE schools are under no restrictions when it comes to recruitment, and NACE members are also not restricted in their interactions with schools that aren't a part of NACE.

Discussion this week often came back to that point: Although NACE clearly needs rules and enforcement to help protect and support its membership, those regulations don't apply outside of the organization. And Riot Games, which runs the College League of Legends tournament, and Tespa, which runs Blizzard's collegiate esports events, have no such guidelines of their own.

Despite its rapid growth, NACE has not yet reached the critical mass of membership needed to lean on developers such as Riot and Blizzard to seek adoption of its policies, NACE director Michael Brooks said. Whether getting to 250 members can change that dynamic is still up for debate.

Unlike the NCAA, NACE can't tell a school it's ineligible to compete in a game as a penalty for breaking a rule.

"We don't have the hammer," Brooks said during a meeting Wednesday. "That's the problem everyone has right now. ... I don't have the silver bullet for it, but nobody does."

NACE also needs permission from intellectual property owners to run tournaments in their games. Multiple veteran members of the organization expressed concern that their membership in NACE was becoming less valuable because the organization has no agency in Overwatch and League of Legends, by far the most popular collegiate esports. According to NACE's internal surveys, 93% of its membership competes in League of Legends, and 86% participate in Overwatch.

"I don't think anyone's advocating for NACE throwing their weight around to try to get Riot to give us the keys to the castle," Jones said. "I'd like to see us work with the Riots and Blizzards of the world to have our own tournament structure. Something to complement what they're already doing, probably something in the fall."

Much of NACE's value has come from the organization's ability to guide schools through the creation and first year of varsity esports programs. Now, the association is trying to find ways to add value for its multiyear members, a task that will partially fall to the newly minted board of directors and competition council.

Leadership

Both the board of directors and competition council were approved by NACE membership on Friday. Absent from the groups are all six founding members of NACE, including three of the most prominent NACE programs. College League of Legends champion Maryville University, perennial contender Columbia College and Robert Morris University -- the first varsity esports program in North America -- did not send representatives to vote or vie for spots on the committee or board.

Only 42 members of NACE were in the room Friday for the voting session, just two shy of the quorum required to rule on association business. Given the timeline for changes and the amount of preparation and remote education on the issues that took place before the business meeting, the group voted to suspend the quorum and continued as planned.

That might have left some of the big names out of the discussion, Jones said, but he affirmed "their voices will be heard" as he and the other elected members set to work. The Drury coach said he already has been in touch with Maryville director of esports Dan Clerke and others around the country who couldn't attend.

"Those three schools, they're doing amazing things," Jones said. "We want to include everyone, but there wasn't an elegant solution this year to letting people contribute remotely. That's something I'd like to see change in the future."

It'll be up to those groups, and the forthcoming eligibility enforcement committee, to shape where NACE will go in the coming academic year.

"I think there are a lot of exciting things to come for NACE," Sallee said. "I'm excited, frankly, at this point, now that we have these rules and government structure in place, that it's going to be a much more collaborative process of NACE members and NACE national office staff coming together to figure out what those next steps are. They've got the expertise. They see how these rules apply on their campus, to their students."