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Volume 21 No. 1
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NCAA seeks guidance for its role in collegiate video gaming

The NCAA is looking for an esports consultant to help the governing body determine if it should play a role in the evolving collegiate video gaming space.

More than 40 NCAA schools across divisions I, II and III are now fielding varsity esports teams, complete with high-tech facilities, scholarships, coaches and recruiting. Many others field competitive club teams.

But the emerging esports landscape differs starkly from the established NCAA sports, and many enthusiasts question whether a marriage is even possible. For starters, it’s common for esports players to earn prize money and a share of advertising revenue from streaming practice sessions, and many of the schools involved in esports have said they prefer to keep it unregulated.

The only governing body for college esports currently is the National Association of Collegiate Esports, which now has 42 member schools. Executive Director Michael Brooks said he and others have anticipated this move by the NCAA.

“Our members and publishers have long believed that substantive changes would have to be made to the NCAA’s bylaws for them to fit in esports,” Brooks said. “When you think about amateurism, Title IX, agreements with publishers, it’s not an easy match.”

But enough schools have asked the NCAA about esports that the association felt compelled to seek a consultant who could act as an expert for colleges.

In an RFP dated Aug. 25, the NCAA asked firms to submit their plan to collaborate on a presentation to the board of governors at their next meeting in October, and continue to advise them over the next year. The board of governors is the NCAA’s highest-ranking governance body and is composed of presidents and chancellors from schools in all divisions.

“The NCAA RFP is simultaneously interesting and terrifying,” said Bryce Blum, executive vice president of esports at Catalyst Sports & Media. “Collegiate esports has so much potential, and with the right guidance the NCAA could have an enormously positive impact on its development. But if they get the wrong consultant and head down the wrong path, they could also do a lot of harm.”

The search is a bold step toward possibly entering the video gaming space, something the NCAA has stayed out of until the most recent board meeting in August, when the board asked the NCAA for more information.

“This is part of the NCAA’s efforts to engage a younger, more diverse group of fans that will provide a connection and loyalty to higher education and collegiate sports,” the RFP reads.

The RFP said bidding agencies should be prepared to “provide options for the NCAA to activate within the esports landscape in a manner that aligns with the organization’s values.” Those options should include a proposed timeline, partnerships, investments and financial commitments that would be required to execute any plan, according to the document.

Also as part of the RFP, the NCAA wants a thorough review of the current esports landscape, feedback on NCAA involvement from key stakeholders and options to align with specific publishers and games. Responses are due by Sept. 12.

Mark Deppe, who oversees esports at the University of California, Irvine, said game publishers’ control over their game titles will make it hard for the NCAA, or any third-party organizer, to thrive. “They would never have full long-term control over the game/IP, they may have a hard time adding/supporting new games as they emerge, and people that are holding tight to amateurism will have a tough time reconciling with the moneymaking side of esports,” Deppe said.

An NCAA spokeswoman declined to comment on the RFP.