SBJ/April 24-30, 2017/Colleges

Colleges flip the switch on esports

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Just seven colleges fielded varsity esports programs as of last July. Now, nine months later, there are 34 varsity esports programs across the country and some officials project as many as 50 to 60 schools will sponsor an esports team by the next academic year.

Varsity esports looks very much like other sports programs, with full-time paid coaches, scholarships, an operating budget that depends on funding from the school, donations and, in some cases, corporate sponsorship. About 40 percent of the varsity teams are run by the athletic department. Others are run by academic departments or the office of student affairs.

“Most of these are small schools,” said Kurt Melcher, who developed the first college esports program at Robert Morris University Illinois in 2014. “But I can promise you that somewhere on Notre Dame’s campus, somewhere on Northwestern’s campus, they’re asking how they can get involved.”

UC-Irvine is among the growing number of colleges to start varsity esports programs.
Photo by: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, IRVINE
College esports has stayed relatively below the radar, compared to the explosive growth at the professional level, which has been fueled by media and marketing giants like WME-IMG and Turner. The pioneering college esports programs have come out of mostly small, private NAIA institutions like Robert Morris, Columbia College in Missouri and Pikeville University in Kentucky, schools not normally associated with big-time sports.

But the announcement out of the University of Utah earlier this month — the Utes will be the first school from a power five conference to field an esports team — has generated a significantly brighter spotlight on college esports.

A.J. Dimick, director of operations for Utah’s fledgling program, said he is taking calls almost every day from other schools that are interested in esports but have not taken the next step.

“They’re all trying to figure out if this is a fad they don’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole, or if the train is leaving the station and they’re not on it,” Dimick said. “It’s so interesting how big this can be and yet go unnoticed in the mainstream until now.”

Part of the problem with understanding college esports is that a program can look very different from campus to campus. While the NCAA has governed college sports for more than a century, it has no authority over esports programs, most of which are run independent of the athletic department.

Esports teams are so young that there’s no real template for how to create one or run it. The first program at NAIA Robert Morris came along just three years ago at a time when teams were club programs, or sometimes just a collection of friends. But at NCAA Division I schools like Utah, California-Irvine and Miami (Ohio), the institution has gotten behind esports with funding and scholarships.

In the absence of a national governing body for college esports, a nonprofit 501(c)3 entity has emerged. The National Association of Collegiate Esports formed last summer with the goal of becoming the NCAA for esports. Of the 34 varsity esports teams nationally, 31 are members of NACE, said executive director Michael Brooks.

Among the most recent additions to NACE’s membership are Utah, Boise State and Missouri-based Stephens College, the first varsity esports program at an all-female institution.

NACE’s growth has been centered on membership from varsity esports programs, which means that Brooks first had to define what makes an esports program a varsity sport. Largely, it means that the program is fully integrated into the school, receives funding, recruits, offers scholarships, has an esports-specific facility for practice and play, and provides equipment.

“Essentially, they operate like most sports programs,” Brooks said.

Based on Brooks’ surveys for NACE, 40 percent of the esports teams are run by the athletic department, 40 percent are run out of student affairs or some other student services department, and 20 percent are managed by an academic department, like Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering school, which will run the Utes’ esports program. Miami (Ohio)’s team was born out of the school’s Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies.

Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman said the schools in her conference are intrigued by the connection with students focused on science, technology, engineering and math. Essentially, administrators see esports as another way to recruit students in their hyper-competitive landscape.

“In their mind, particularly the presidents, it’s become a way to engage the science, technology, engineering and math students, for whom it becomes their sport,” Ackerman said last week at the CAA World Congress of Sports. “It’s less of a physical activity than competition, of course. But we’ve seen great interest there.”

The number and amount of scholarships are typically determined by the school’s board or president at the smaller schools. The academic departments or student affairs also have budgets for esports scholarships.

NACE projects that about $7 million in annual esports scholarships will be granted by the next academic year from varsity programs.

Most esports team budgets start in the low six figures annually — around $200,000. Salaries, facilities, equipment and scholarships are the main costs, although many schools are able to get gaming equipment donated. Travel, by the nature of esports, typically isn’t required, except in the recruiting budget.

The esports team at UC-Irvine, which is administered by student affairs, is the first known program to be self-sufficient. Fundraising and sponsorship accounts for 80 percent of the budget, while computer and game rentals in its on-campus esports arena covers the remaining 20 percent. The team pays for utilities, staff and equipment in the arena.

“We don’t get a penny from UCI; we cover all of our costs,” said Mark Deppe, who directs the program and sells sponsorships, such as the naming-rights agreement with iBuyPower, a gaming computer company, for the esports arena.

UC-Irvine’s esports sponsorships range from $25,000 to $100,000, Deppe said, and a recent UCI Giving Day event raised $1,400 in donations, an area he hopes to cultivate.

As esports evolves and sponsorship opportunities emerge, the natural question is whether university multimedia rights holders, like IMG College, Learfield or others, will get involved in the selling. WME-IMG already has partnered with Turner to create ELeague, and has worked with the Philadelphia 76ers and others on franchise ownership, making esports a clear priority across its company.

“The evolution of esports on college campuses is squarely on our radar,” said IMG College President Tim Pernetti. “There is a very real similarity in the passions that college sports fans and esports enthusiasts have for their schools.”

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