It’s back to school season, and that means for many a renewed interest in the business of college sports. One that many will be watching, albeit still quizzically, is the rise of esports and gaming on college campuses, not as much as recreation (where it has been for decades) but as an intercollegiate activity of some fashion.
For some there are visions of arenas filling with diehard fans screaming as Penn State takes on Ohio State in the Big 10 Finals of “Heroes of the Dorm” or traditional games like League of Legends. For others there are visions of campus centers filled with young people playing competitive Madden or FIFA for a charity. For others it means a chance for schools to compete intercollegiately and connect with a nod to global tech, science and learning. Where will it all fall? Maybe somewhere in the middle of all? No one knows at this point, but there are many, including the NCAA, looking at what kind of model could work. One thing that most agree on though; for anything to work there needs to be structure.
So in our quest to learn more we reached out first to one person leading a brand actively working in the space, and came upon a second person, one who works with esports personalities but was actually there at the birth of competitive college esports as the coach, mentor, teacher as Robert Morris University in Chicago became the first school to actually offer esports scholarships way back in 2014.
They are Tyler Schrodt, founder of the Electronic Game Federation, and Jason Greenglass, EVP of esports at Evolved Talent Agency in Los Angeles. While we did our podcast with them (it lasts about 50 minutes) that you can listen to here, there are some interesting highlights as well. They include:
Esports on campus is new, but not really: While the fascination/obsession with esports expands every day, competitive esports on campus has been around for a few years. Greenglass, a lawyer by trade, was living across the street from RMU when he heard about their ambition in 2014 and became coach (he was a competitive gamer to some extent with a strong knowledge of business) shortly thereafter. Schrodt was running intercollegiate events at Rochester Institute of Technology in 2013.
Scholarships Are Growing: There are currently over 40 schools offering some form of esports “scholarship.” What that means varies greatly as does the size of the school, ranging from the University of Utah to the Peach Belt Conference to very small schools.
NCAA-like Structure: Schrodt pointed out that like collegiate sports, esports on campus will feature numerous games. So expect to see one school with a DoTA team or a League of Legends team, just like they would have football, women’s soccer and tennis. The teams can and should be co-ed as well. The biggest misconception remains for all of “esports” is that it is under one umbrella, when in reality, like the Olympics or college sport, each game has its own vertical and will be run as so.
Where Are The Areas Of Help Needed: Schrodt pointed out that the advising and structure, not just for college but for high schools as well, is falling into three areas: Governance (meaning structure for programs and consistent rule making), Education (getting an understanding of what the opportunities and challenges for collegiate esports are) and Production (what is needed to put on events large and small so that there is consistency and uniformity in competitions). Things like data collection, branding and licensing, coaching and business structure are also in the mix. There is also the discussion of where collegiate esports ends up on campus; student life (which is where many growing club sports have surfaced) or athletics (where funding and title IX issues may arise). It is all very fluid but taking structure.
It’s About Jobs: Just like traditional sports, the path for professional, successful esports is very narrow. While it is growing globally, it is not a clear path to success. What college esports programs can do is feed into careers in programming, coding, science, math, tech, design, even marketing and branding, as the world of gaming and esports continues to grow. Learning the design of games and being part of an established and well organized competitive team, just like traditional college or even high school sports, is why and how the future of college esports may be bright. It speaks directly to rising industries that are global and underserved.
Teaching Teamwork: Greenglass was adamant to point out that his time around college esports both in the past at RMU and now was not just about engaging 24/7 in front of a console. His students, some of whom are professional players, many of whom are not, learned the value of time management, teamwork, discipline, and work/life balance while participating on teams. Those skills are essential to any career, and with the right coaching, are going to be key drivers for college esports on campus. Less frat house thought, more study and competition.
Not A Money Maker: As in many facets of esports today, college esports are not a moneymaker, nor may they ever be, the same way in which most non-revenue sports on campus are about student life and teamwork, not dollars coming in. So how does a school benefit from organizing esports? It will help with global recruitment especially for small schools looking to attract diverse students. It can benefit STEM programs at all schools (including high schools) who may already have tech infrastructure in place. It is low cost, there is not a great deal of dollars needed to formulate and support a team. Events are mostly online (at this point). Most importantly, a large number of students are either active players or casual gamers, so it creates a common connection on campus and across campuses that already exists.
A Money Maker For The Players? Because there are no rules or regulations, schools can divvy up scholarships however they like (like schools do with traditional non-revenue sports). The big difference is that collegiate esports players can keep endorsements and prize money, both with collegiate events and in events outside of their college team. Amateurism is not an issue here. That poses a very precarious position for NCAA sanctioned sports, where student athletes are not traditionally compensated. What happens if say, the League of Legends team at UCLA wins a championship and keeps the money. How does the UCLA football or basketball player feel or react to that? It is an issue/opportunity that could signal a new path for overall college athletics but one that will be monitored very closely.
Gaming vs. Esports: While both acknowledged that there may be a seemingly easy learning curve for colleges to develop teams for games like Madden and NBA 2K and FIFA, the real path they feel are in traditional esports. Those video games will help create some commonality for students in campus, which is certainly not a bad thing, but the followers of esports titles might not be the same audience. Understanding the landscape and the audience and learning and listening to the students is key in developing the program and not losing money and wasting time.
Timeframe: Schrodt was careful to point out that in advising schools on startup there is a need to make sure that the teams they are creating can engage in a game that has a minimum three to five year lifespan. Multiple games, just like multiple sports in athletes, are also key. The last thing that is needed is a school to invest in support and then the player pool, or the game itself (since gaming companies control the IP) dries up.
Where Is It Going? There is no doubt that college esports is becoming more and more of a viable recognized activity. How fast are things changing? Greenglass pointed out that the conversation will be different not in two years, but in 18 months, and Schrodt was eager to point to 2018 as a landmark year for his company as schools grow and engage. The base of players and the knowledge of gaming already exists on campus, and the barriers to initial entry is low. The launch of programs surrounding college competitions on Bog 10 network and ESPN set a stage for relevance, and the continued improvement of Wi-Fi and teaming signals on campuses will also impact engagement.
The definitions of success for college esports still vary greatly. However there is no doubt that there is interest, potential dollars and lots and lots of learning to be had in the coming months and years. We will be watching to see how companies like Evolved and Electronic Game Federation adapt and grow as the landscape plays out.
Another interesting listen and read as the sports business world rolls along.