Final Four-nite? NCAA explores move to sponsor esports
The NCAA has significant interest in creating an esports championship, but there remains considerable opposition to involvement from the governing body and its amateur model.
The Board of Governors, the NCAA’s highest-ranking committee, had in-depth conversations at its October meeting, exploring reasons why it should sponsor esports, and whether esports programs should be housed in athletics or some other department on campus such as student affairs.
They also discussed what an NCAA esports championship would look like, and how the champion would be determined. One suggestion that generated interest mirrored the track and field championship, in which athletes win points for their school based on their performance across multiple events.
The NCAA board, which spans Divisions I, II and III, wasn’t sure if esports would be a fall, winter or spring sport, or all of the above.
The NCAA’s consultant, Chicago-based Intersport, gave another presentation to the board last month that provided further feedback from member schools.
“The research will play a key role in better defining the current college esports landscape, including participation levels, leadership structure, and potential areas of growth,” the NCAA said in a prepared statement to SBJ. “The NCAA will continue to evaluate how it can best support its members as they pursue and adopt esports programs.”
The NCAA’s interest in esports has shifted from curious to serious for a variety of reasons.
University presidents and chancellors see esports as an effective recruiting tool to bring in higher-achieving students. There also is a growing sense that if the NCAA doesn’t move toward sponsoring esports, some other entity will form a college championship or season series.
Riot Games has already worked with several conferences to develop its College League of Legends property, and the National Association of Collegiate Esports is now up to 109 members.
An NCAA-backed esports championship presents as many questions as solutions. How would Title IX affect levels of participation and the number of scholarships offered? Would the NCAA apply its eligibility standards to esports, where cash prizes are routinely offered at all levels and many players profit from their online practice sessions?
Industry mavens know the NCAA could rapidly organize a coherent framework of elite national college competitions. But they worry the cost could be too high.
“There is no doubt the NCAA has the potential to effect positive change for collegiate esports,” said Bryce Blum, founding partner of ESG Law, a firm that represents many of the top American teams. “… With that said, a misguided NCAA could do more harm than good.”
Standard amateurism restrictions are a total non-starter, Blum said.
“The biggest fear within the esports community is that the NCAA will simply apply existing rules, regulations and norms to esports, and if that happens the impact on the rapid growth and development of the collegiate esports ecosystem could be catastrophic,” Blum said.
Ken Hersh, the primary capital backer to the esports organization Envy Gaming, said universities should treat their nascent esports programs as a full-fledged athletic department priority.
“This is going to be a D-I activity,” Hersh said. “I’ve had university presidents call and ask about it. The first thing I tell them is to get it out of your engineering department and put it in your athletic department. Why? Because you’ll be ahead of the pack and that’s where it’s going to wind up anyway. You might as well just do it. … Put it where the athletic department is and just call it what it is. It may not be there yet, but in two or three years, it’ll be an Olympic sport.”
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