College LOL grows as more schools buy in
Riot Games says at least 50 colleges and universities will field varsity esports teams in the 2019 College League of Legends season, up from about 30 this year.
The publisher says 2019 will set a new benchmark for total participation — 416 teams had signed up by Nov. 29 with one day remaining before deadline, up from 312 this year. But Riot’s focus has shifted from sheer growth to securing maximum institutional buy-in, meaning varsity status and conference-wide commitments instead of student-led clubs.
“I view this all as a trajectory, and a transition to a more structured state,” said Matt Birris, head of scholastic esports for Riot. “It might be a long-term future where the only teams competing have some kind of varsity program and everyone’s got some kind of conference.”
At least four conferences are competing: the Big Ten, which authorized the Big Ten Network to work with Riot on its behalf; Peach Belt and East Coast from Division II; and the Division III Landmark. Between 40 and 50 schools will compete through those conferences.
The majority of schools competing in the college circuit are still clubs, led by students without varsity-style support. Riot will continue to service those teams, executives said, but now consider it a priority to secure commitments from top-level university administrators, and ideally conferences. They consider a team “varsity” if it’s officially sanctioned by the school, has faculty accountable for the program and uses a school trademark.
Riot expects to sign at least one more conference before the end of the year, and also is trying to sign up another 30 varsity programs before the season starts.
Unaligned schools play in regional, “swiss-style” brackets, where their next opponents are only determined after each week’s games and the teams are re-ranked, to ensure quality matchups.
Conferences, however, play a predetermined schedule of their classic rivals no matter the win-loss records, such as Ohio State-Michigan.
“At the school level, they know how to market and build programming around that experience,” said Michael Sherman, Riot’s esports manager for college.
For a conference to join College League of Legends, Riot requires at least two-thirds of its members to participate.
The NCAA has been investigating its possible role in esports with help from Intersport and decided at an October board of governors meeting to continue its work. Right now, the NCAA is not involved in the Riot league.
While most esports insiders are skeptical of the NCAA, Riot recognizes how much it could accelerate its efforts to bring order to college competitions, Sherman said.
“The same layers and structures that exist in traditional sports are going to need to exist in order to fully realize a mature college sports scene in North America,” he said. “The potential of the NCAA is that that layer is already there. It may not be functioning at its best all the time, but it’s definitely in support of college sports.”
Sherman stopped short of endorsing the NCAA’s involvement.
“From my perspective, we think that layer is sort of inevitable,” he said. “The shape of that, who it is, is still up in the air.”
Riot has made no attempt to commercialize its college and high school efforts to date. It believes those tiers are most valuable as loss leaders to ensure the game remains popular as its original user base ages.
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