The following was co-authored by Columbia student Maurice Eisenmann…
We are now heading towards “March Madness,” and on college campuses, a growing number of schools big and small, another type of madness is breaking out; collegiate eSports madness. Collegiate eSports, that is eSports that will involve competition amongst American colleges, is moving to a breakthrough year in 2017. While we did mention this trend in an earlier article, last week’s news that Riot Games and The Big Ten Network are partnering up to start a collegiate League of Legends tournament, on the heels of ESPN’s Heros of the Dorm events, is another game changer for both that marketing and the awareness of .
With 12 out of the 14 universities in the conference competing, each athlete will receive $5.000 in scholarship money. The tournament is expected to be broadcast on traditional TV on the Big Ten Network and online through Riot’s channels. Last week, the Collegiate Starleague and Electronic Arts also announced a collegiate Madden Tournament, with college students playing for two $5.000 dollar scholarships. Rumors are that the EA event will be broadcast on the NFL Network, which would be consistent with the weekly EA Madden news show. In this article we will analyze the key players in this industry and the ways and opportunities that make collegiate eSports different than regular college sports.
The Key Players
The Universities: According to Michael Sherman, head of Riot’s competitive League of Legends division, there are currently 25 schools that offer some sort of scholarship for eSports athletes (up from 15 about 3 months ago). Many schools are looking at the success that colleges like Robert Morris in Chicago and the University of British Columbia are having, getting sponsor dollars for the teams by brands like Quest Nutrition, so the expectation is that colleges looking to carve a niche or add value to their may announce eSports scholarships in the near future.
ULoL: University League of Legends, is Riot’s collegiate department for its successful eSports title. Their mission is not only to organize collegiate League of Legends tournaments such as the recently announced one with The Big Ten Network. But also, to help establish the creation of LOL college clubs and to support them throughout the academic year with tournaments and by providing the student a professional intercollegiate network. According to Sherman, there are now over 700 League of Legends college clubs in the US and Canada, there were only 300 in 2015, many of these clubs could become foundations for future college teams as many of them are eligible to play in tournaments.
Collegiate StarLeague: StarLeague, one of the biggest independent organizers of collegiate eSports events, gives out over $200.000 in scholarships a year and has tournaments for every relevant eSport including: League of Legends, DOTA 2, CS:GO and Hearthstone. While this organization has so far pretty much only worked with club teams, after the announcement of the previously mentioned Madden deal that might change. Their biggest challenge remains their lack of intellectual property, which might be an issue if other publishers besides Riot and Blizzard decide to start a collegiate arm or decide to limit other collegiate organizers from using their IP.
Tespa: A newly founded collegiate eSports network owned by Blizzard, Tespa, had their first event last September with a $150.000 scholarship prize pot. At the moment, Tespa is being handled pretty similarly to ULoL and has over 190 chapters across North America. Tespa offers tournaments for Overwatch, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm, Blizzards three biggest eSports titles. Unlike ULoL, Tespa currently does not have any major network deals but expect that to change soon.
Brands: Coca Cola, Quest Nutrition, Asus, MSI, Newegg, Acer, Lenovo, Microsoft and Twitch are just some of the brands that have either hosted or sponsored a collegiate eSports event. As of now, most of these brands are endemic but that with the recent tournament announcements that will probably change very soon.
The (Historical) Differences Between Collegiate eSports and other Collegiate Athletics
Less Regulation (Paid Athletes, Endorsements, Use of Likeness etc.): Because collegiate eSports are not part of any governmental organization like the NCAA (they fall under club sports and activities), there is less restriction to what the players, teams, universities and brands can do. First of all, players are able to play for scholarship money and might even be able to endorse brands, making collegiate eSports the closest we currently have to “professional” collegiate athletes. It is not dissimilar to what could go on with “club” sports like rugby, or even competitive robotics, or in some cases even how Ultimate Frisbee teams have been formed and compensated. The clubs can run a P and L, and use the name and marks of the University without traditional support from the athletic department…for now.
Finally, brands will be able to directly sponsor players and pay players for the use of their likeness.
Co-Ed Teams: UBC eSports, arguably the most successful collegiate eSports organization has brought in over $180.000 in prize money two years in a row, and has both men and women on their team. Unlike traditional sports, there is no physical gender barrier in eSports (although some would like to argue that eSports still has a long way to go to get full equality for women). Because of the lack of a gender barrier, eSports can write history and become the first co-ed collegiate sport. While eSports is still heavily male dominated (75% male), publishers and teams are trying to change that and soon we might see multiple female collegiate eSports success stories!
The Student-Athlete: Because eSports does not have a size or particular physical skill that is needed (although the mental part of successful eSports is just as valuable as it is for training in any traditional sport), eSports athletes can cut a wider swath reflective of a student population. Schools also looking to recruit for enrollment can also look to countries where eSports are already much more advanced and mainstream…certain countries in Asia for example…to widen the scope of their campus demographics. While there is no doubt eSports success does take a strong commitment, looking beyond the US borders for schools that are looking to bring in more students, ones who are both academically gifted and have a penchant for intercollegiate completion may also be a smart play for schools.
eSports interest also translates into growth areas for potential jobs away from the console, be they code writing, technology or analytics as well, and is not limited to competition between just, US colleges. The potential exists for global competitions like you would see in debate or chess, as eSports is not bound by any borders or the unique system that collegiate sports in the US is part of.
Many stakeholders are finally waking up to the potential of college eSports without stigma or stereotype. With the lack of regulation like the NCAA, collegiate eSports provides an opportunity to create revenue for all parties. However like regular eSports, collegiate eSports is still chaotic in structure and has to be engaged with a very cautious eye still. No formal regulation still can lead to scandal, and while people are surprised to hear about drug issues in eSports, ask any college student about the overuse of Attention Deficit Drugs on campus around exam time and you will see where an unregulated or monitored system can run into problems. There are also no age restrictions, so having grad or part-time students rule the roost may seem unfair, it can easily happen in eSports much more easily than in the NCAA system.
The change factor for the good is in media and brand attention which seeks regularity, coupled with publishers like Blizzard and Riot and organizers like the Collegiate Starleague pushing for order.
With eSports expanding on a professional level, it appears now is the time for informed universities to push for an eSports program. If collegiate eSports teams are breaking collegiate streaming records, you will want to make sure that your school can reap the benefits of exposure enrollment, buzz and financial success.
Will we ever talk about engagement numbers like we see in college football or the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments? That is a long way off. However college eSports is a platform to watch, at least from a business perspective. Madness of a different kind, for a different generation.