The Curious Case of Collegiate Esports
Why Varsity Esports Matters More Than The NCAA
This is perhaps the most pressing topic I attempt to tackle every single day I spend in collegiate esports. While the majority of this post will be speaking from my personal experiences and viewpoints this post is also partially in response to Venturebeat’s article “The NCAA needs to help college esports grow”. In fact, most of this piece will be dedicated to a light critique of the NCAA’s regulations and bylines which is at the core of the argument needing to be made.
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It’s only natural for universities to express concern and confusion when it comes to collegiate esports. Esports challenges conventional beliefs surrounding video games. For some this is a good thing, for others it’s an intensely difficult concept to grasp. I’ll be writing a separate piece diving into the culture problems (and need for cultural development) within collegiate esports soon.
However, in an area where the decision makers tend to be older esports presents a unique task in that it requires a wealth of education and destigmatization before the item can even be on the table for discussion. “What’s an “esports?”” is a phrase often muttered by persons freshly exposed to the concept. Most have preconceived notions of what/who gamers are (classic South Park stereotypes drawn from the episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft”), and what goes into play/training (or lack thereof). They don’t understand the rigorous amount of work, time, effort, and upkeep that goes into competing in esports at the highest level, yet. (I’ll probably write a piece surrounding what goes into creating a successful esports team in the future.)
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Though I really should jump into the why of varsity esports matters. Varsity esports for all intents and purposes is a gray area when it comes to collegiate athletics. Varsity esports doesn’t adhere to the same traditions, bylines, and regulations that the NCAA does; though most will adopt the core underpinnings of NCAA rules such as (some form of) amateurism and degree progression.
“The days of unpaid student-athletes are over!”
At least that’s what a lot of people are concerned about, for better or worse. Student-athlete’s ability to monetize themselves tends to be somewhat of a paradoxical component to collegiate esports that is simultaneously overlooked and focused upon as the primary point of contention (for most). NOW, I could get into the ethics of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) and how they treat their student-athletes right here and right now…but, I think I’ll save that for a post down the line. For now I’ll simply speak on a few issues the NCAA presents. In particular, what the NCAA’s amateurism and Title IX rules entail and why they stand to impact esports student-athletes more so than traditional student-athletes.
“The Commitment to Amateurism. Member institutions shall conduct their athletics programs for students who choose to participate in intercollegiate athletics as a part of their educational experience and in accordance with NCAA bylaws, thus maintaining a line of demarcation between student-athletes who participate in the Collegiate Model and athletes competing in the professional model.” (2016–2017, NCAA Division I Manual, Page Xii)
2.9 The Principle of Amateurism. [*] Student-athletes shall be amateurs in an intercollegiate sport, and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived. Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises. (2016–2017, NCAA Division I Manual, Page 4)
The NCAA’s amateurism rules stand to be a major sticking point for esports student-athletes. Liberty University does a good job of summing NCAA amateurism here. These talking points mostly highlight issues surrounding pay.
Prohibitions regarding non-NCAA events and maintaining amateur status stand to impede esports in the sense that it goes against how esports operates at a fundamental level.
12.1.2 Amateur Status. An individual loses amateur status and thus shall not be eligible for intercollegiate competition in a particular sport if the individual: (Revised: 4/25/02 effective 8/1/02, 4/24/03 effective 8/1/03, 4/29/10 effective 8/1/10)
(a) Uses his or her athletics skill (directly or indirectly) for pay in any form in that sport;
(b) Accepts a promise of pay even if such pay is to be received following completion of intercollegiate athletics participation;
(c) Signs a contract or commitment of any kind to play professional athletics s, regardless of its legal enforceability or any consideration received, except as permitted in Bylaw 126.96.36.199;
(d) Receives, directly or indirectly, a salary, reimbursement of expenses or any other form of financial assistance from a professional sports organization based on athletics skill or participation, except as permitted by NCAA rules and regulations;
(e) Competes on any professional athletics team per Bylaw 12.02.11, even if no pay or remuneration for expenses was received, except as permitted in Bylaw 188.8.131.52.1;
(f) After initial full-time collegiate enrollment, enters into a professional draft (see Bylaw 12.2.4); or
(g) Enters into an agreement with an agent.
(2016–2017, NCAA Division I Manual, Page 55–56)
184.108.40.206.4 Expenses, Awards and Benefits. Excessive or improper expenses, awards and benefits. 220.127.116.11.4.1 Cash or Equivalent Award. Cash, or the equivalent thereof (e.g., trust fund), as an award for participation in competition at any time, even if such an award is permitted under the rules governing an amateur, noncollegiate event in which the individual is participating. An award or a cash prize that an individual could not receive under NCAA legislation may not be forwarded in the individual’s name to a different individual or agency. (Revised: 4/25/02 effective 8/1/02; 2016–2017, NCAA Division I Manual; Page 56)
18.104.22.168 Use of Overall Athletics Skill — Effect on Eligibility. Participation for pay in competition that involves the use of overall athletics skill (e.g., “superstars” competition) constitutes a violation of the Association’s amateur-status regulations; therefore, an individual participating for pay in such competition is ineligible for intercollegiate competition in all sports. (See Bylaw 22.214.171.124.3 for exception related to promotional contests.) (Revised: 4/25/02 effective 8/1/02; NCAA Division I Manual, Page 57)
Granted there are exceptions to these rules. However, the exceptions to the rule raise a slew of questions regarding what’s “necessary” and “what happens to excess winnings”? Though the following NCAA bylines have been a consistent point of contention when it comes to collegiate student-athletes, scholarships, lack of payment for student-athletes, university revenue generated from NCAA competitions, self-funding, gifts, and “exposure” play.
126.96.36.199.1 Exception for Prize Money Based on Performance — Sports Other Than Tennis. In sports other than tennis, an individual may accept prize money based on his or her place finish or performance in an athletics event. Such prize money may not exceed actual and necessary expenses and may be provided only by the sponsor of the event. The calculation of actual and necessary expenses shall not include the expenses or fees of anyone other than the individual (e.g., coach’s fees or expenses, parent’s expenses). (Adopted: 4/25/02 effective 8/1/02, Revised: 12/12/06 applicable to any expenses received by a prospective studentathlete on or after 8/23/06, 4/26/12, 1/19/13 effective 8/1/13; NCAA Division I Manual, Page 58)
188.8.131.52.3 Exception for Payment Based on Team Performance. An individual may accept payment from his or her amateur team or the sponsor of the event based on his or her team’s place finish or performance, or given on an incentive basis (e.g., bonus), provided the combination of such payments and expenses provided to the individual does not exceed his or her actual and necessary expenses to participate on the team. The calculation of actual and necessary expenses shall not include the expenses or fees of anyone other than the individual (e.g., coach’s fees or expenses, parent’s expenses). (Adopted: 10/28/10, Revised: 1/19/13 effective 8/1/13; NCAA Division I Manual, Page 58)
The answer to these exceptions in my experience with university compliance officials, lawyers, and student recreation appear to be that any money earned by a team competing in the university’s name will need to funnel any earnings back into the university’s program (should the university have a university sanctioned sports club team or varsity team). Though exceptions can be made if students are too compete in events in-and-of their own right and without university ties. That’s a fairly relaxed regulation and distinction at the sports club/varsity level. The closest form of external competition we’ve seen from NCAA student-athletes is their participation in the Olympics (which there are heavy regulations for in the manual).
184.108.40.206 Competition Against Professionals. An individual may participate singly or as a member of an amateur team against professional athletes or professional teams. (Revised: 8/24/07)
220.127.116.11 Competition With Professionals. An individual shall not be eligible for intercollegiate athletics in a sport if the individual ever competed on a professional team (per Bylaw 12.02.11) in that sport. However, an individual may compete on a tennis, golf, two-person beach volleyball or two-person synchronized diving team with persons who are competing for cash or a comparable prize, provided the individual does not receive payment or prize money that exceeds his or her actual and necessary expenses, which may only be provided by the sponsor of the event. (Revised: 1/9/96 effective 8/1/96, 1/14/97, 4/25/02 effective 8/1/02, 4/28/14, 7/31/15)
18.104.22.168.1 Exception — Competition Before Initial Full-Time Collegiate Enrollment — Sports Other Than Men’s Ice Hockey and Skiing. In sports other than men’s ice hockey and skiing, before initial full-time collegiate enrollment, an individual may compete on a professional team (per Bylaw 12.02.11), provided he or she does not receive more than actual and necessary expenses to participate on the team. (Adopted: 4/29/10 effective 8/1/10; applicable to student-athletes who initially enroll full time in a collegiate institution on or after 8/1/10)
22.214.171.124.2 Professional Player as Team Member. An individual may participate with a professional on a team, provided the professional is not being paid by a professional team or league to play as a member of that team (e.g., summer basketball leagues with teams composed of both professional and amateur athletes).
126.96.36.199.3 Professional Coach or Referee. Participation on a team that includes a professional coach or referee does not cause the team to be classified as a professional team.
188.8.131.52.4 Major Junior Ice Hockey. Ice hockey teams in the United States and Canada, classified by the Canadian Hockey Association as major junior teams, are considered professional teams under NCAA legislation.
184.108.40.206.4.1 Limitation on Restoration of Eligibility. An appeal for restoration of eligibility may be submitted on behalf of an individual who has participated on a major junior ice hockey team under the provisions of Bylaw 12.12; however, such individual shall be denied at least the first year of intercollegiate athletics competition in ice hockey at the certifying institution and shall be charged with the loss of at least one season of eligibility in ice hockey. (Revised: 1/11/89)
220.127.116.11.5 Exception — Olympic/National Teams. It is permissible for an individual (prospective student-athlete or student-athletes) to participate on Olympic or national teams that are competing for prize money or are being compensated by the governing body to participate in a specific event, provided the student-athlete does not accept prize money or any other compensation (other than actual and necessary expenses). (Adopted: 8/8/02)
18.104.22.168 Competition in Professional All-Star Contest. A student-athlete who agrees to participate in a professional (players to be paid) all-star game becomes ineligible to compete in any intercollegiate contest that occurs after that agreement. Thus, a senior entering into such an agreement immediately following the last regular-season intercollegiate contest would not be eligible to compete in a bowl game, an NCAA championship or any other postseason intercollegiate contest. (2016–2017, NCAA Division I Manual, Page 61)
These particular bylines raise other concerns for esports-based student-athletes. Problems partially stem from how you might view collegiate esports. To some collegiate is an incubator for the professional scene, for others collegiate is a “retirement home” for young professionals to develop necessary skills to streamline into more formal industry work. By the bylines presented above several universities actively participating in ULoL would already have been in violation of NCAA bylines. Until esports reaches more traditional means of feeder system infrastructures it’s best not to hinder players who may have started young, forgoing an education, from using their talents as a means to help them obtain a degree. The system is backwards now and esports athletes in their mid-twenties are essential geriatric.
Allowing student-athletes to compete against professionals as an amateur team (sans pay) would allow for a collegiate team to actively participate in events such as Activision-Blizzard Overwatch Contender series. However lines would become blurred should an amateur team place strongly enough in the event to be awarded any monetary prize or be sought after to join a professional team. Problems would arise when independent systems and collegiate systems cross paths. For example, it might be possible for a collegiate student-athlete to develop and play alongside an NALCS (North American League Championship Series) academy team during the summer split starting Summer 2018. Though under the NALCS’s new franchising rules there are minimum pay standards for athletes. In a franchised system where teams have to pay their athletes a minum salary of $75,000 but an NCAA system would require only necessary expenditures be covered we run into an issue of policy. It would be uncharted territory for the NCAA and would assuredly require new rules to be developed and agreed upon by both parties. Though such an issue can potentially be avoided through varsity esports given how relaxed rules and bylines are within the space.
Now, I’m not encouraging this type of play, nor am I saying it shouldn’t be regulated. As systems for Overwatch (Open Divisions and Contenders) and League of Legends (Academy) shape up I think that there will need to be more traditional feeder system put in place to properly regulate flow of players from high school to collegiate to professional. Perhaps in 5-to-10 years we’ll see a traditional flow of players where the majority have some degree of college education under their belt prior to entering the majors.
Incidentally there are already rules in the current infrastructure of collegiate esports that prohibit players from playing on professional teams and seeing them comeback to their university. One of the most notorious cases is that of the University of Californa, Irvine’s (UCI) players Young-bin “Youngbin” Chung who signed with a struggling Team Liquid during the 2017 NACS Spring Split (article can be found here), and was promptly dropped back down to a sub role shortly after signing in favor of Team Solo Mid’s Yiliang ‘Doublelift’ Peng (article can be found here)
In this situation Chung opted to forgo his scholarship position with UCI’s university League of Legends team to play with Team Liquid. This not only crippled UCI from a competitive standpoint, but it also put Chung at risk if his position turned out to not be permanent because of ULoL’s regulations. ULoL puts forth that a player who participates in the LCS will be collegiate ineligible for a year. The rule is presumably different when it comes to the North American Challenger Series. And Chung currently isn’t planning to return to UCI the rule does highlight major concerns. The situation hinders Chung’s ability to return to UCI on an esports scholarship, should he desire to do so. Moreover, it also put UCI in a precarious position where they were made to exchange a seasoned veteran student-athlete for a true freshman. A switch that saw UCI losing to Simon Frasier University and bowing out of this year’s ULoL competition perhaps earleir than they would have otherwise should Chung have remained on the roster.
Beyond isolated cases such as Chung’s the NCAA’s restrictions for all intents and purposes ban players from competing in major external events, less event organizers be faced with payment issues should a player or team win said event. And as it has been put to me by Colorado State University’s student recreation and NCAA compliance officials there is either a general set of stipulations or outright bar from participating in external events any way. In the case of student recreation any club sport team that participates in an outside event while in jersey will have to feed all earnings back into the program. From my understanding the NCAA wouldn’t allow for participation in those external events as they do not fit the scope of the NCAA’s collegiate ecosphere. On the bright side, our NCAA compliance officials and lawyers have verified that varsity esports such as through at Robert Morris University or Maryville University operate in a legal gray area and need not adhere to the NCAA’s restrictions (though application of amateurism bylines is highly encouraged).
Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a federal law that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Title IX is always a focus when it comes to esports, for better or for worse. On one hand esports stands to present one of the most equitable competitive playing fields in all of sports as it ignores a student-athlete’s gender and able-ness. Esports readily allows for co-ed teams and is accessible to players such as Able Gamers Charity’s Mike “BrolyLegs” Begum (A vignette exploring Begum’s story can be found here).
The NCAA’s regulations surrounding co-ed sports require active participation from male and female players on a given team in order for a sport to be classified compliant. It’s not enough to present an open format that allows female players an opportunity to earn a spot in a largely male dominated field (Yet another topic worth of its own article).
Under the NCAA if a school cannot field a truly co-ed team then it is expected that a male and female variant of the sport will be created less neither can compete and the sport will be relegated to a club sport. This goes against the inclusive nature that esports stands for and only prompts further segregation. Needless to say it would be ideal to avoid such prohibitions and provide all student-athletes with equal opportunity to participate on any given university’s esports team on an open basis. That kind of open-door policy is difficult to apply under an NCAA inclusion.
For individuals such as Begum competition may not even be a possibility under the NCAA. From personal experience in attempting to turn esports into a club sport at Colorado State University as a preliminary means to transition it into a varsity level sport the question of “physicality” came up often. Now, this’s not to say that individuals such as Begum would be discriminated against under an NCAA system. However, when it comes to the antiquated systems of the NCAA and university club sports there has to be a clear understanding surrounding the physicality of a sport for it to be blessed off on. in other words, traditional means of adopting esports into both club sports and the NCAA stand to be difficult because of their emphasis on “physicality”.
Some universities such as the University of Limerick’s Physical Education and Sports Sciences programs are dedicate considerable time and funding to researching the physicality of esports (source). Though there is plenty of evidence and parallels that showcase the physicality of esports and the benefits of exercise, a healthy diet, and healthy schedule. That doesn’t even begin to get into the the mental fortitude, communication, practice, and endurance required to compete at the highest levels. However this is not always readily apparent to a heavily demanding administration. And while this speaks to overarching problems with cultural perceptions of esports and esports athletes it is easier to avoid the hangups presented by the NCAA’s antiquated perceptions of what warrants a sport. Varisty esports being a gray area presents a less restrictive system that can more readily maintain an open door policy when it comes to Title IX restrictions. It is less cumbersome to develop esports within it’s own varsity-league-type bubble where the benefits, athleticism, physicality, and competition appear to be readily understood without the creation of artificial barriers being a problem.
I’ll steal a line from Gary Vaynerchuk here and say that…
“ [w]hat matters is whether or not you can add value to the bottom line.”
Helping universities to understand how esports adds value is the best thing you can do. While the politics of inclusivity and physicality are initial points of contention for universities, once stabilized the ability to turn a profit will always be a primary end concern.
As much as I hate to say it, esports present universities with a highly beneficial marketing tool. Esports hits a key demographic that is disappearing from traditional sports (sixteen-to-mid-to-late-twenty-year-olds). Esports gives universities a politically correct tool (with exception to the ‘violence’ exhibited in some games) that hits an often elusive millennial demographic.
Beyond the appeal to core demographics esports allows universities to access major partnerships with non-endemic brands that weren’t a possibility prior to esports inclusion at the collegiate level. Benefits that extend to: ticket sales, broadcasting rights, merchandising, in-game sales, brand deals, and other integrated pay shares.
The Venturebeat article makes a distinct point to highlight potential concerns regarding collegiate licensing rights.
“The article states “Another often overlooked, but not insignificant, piece of this equation is the merchandise that collegiate esports teams are sure to sell to fans. If the athletic department of one university and the non-NCAA sanctioned esports team from that same university are both selling merchandise but from different companies (like a Nike school with an Adidas-sponsored DOTA 2 team), it may create disputes. Legal collisions will inevitably arise as esports teams inadvertently tread on the intellectual property rights of colleges and their official licensees.”
Speaking from experience through my handling affairs at Colorado State University with our registered student organization the ‘Esports Association at Colorado State University’, and through student recreation and external relations, I can say for a fact that these type of issues surrounding licensing are heavily regulated. Universities covet their professional major-brand relationships, ESPECIALLY those with THE BIG FOUR (Adidas, Nike, Under Armour, & Reebok).
The thing that the Venturebeat writers don’t understand (and within reason) is that the whole of these major relationships is regulated closely by external relations. Not just anyone can forge a relationship with a major brand under the university’s nose. University’s take their external relationship very seriously and if those relationships are encroached upon or put at risk the university can and WILL bring it litigation. In order to dictate any kind of major relationship (in a committal sense) you either have to be part of the university’s external relations team or have expressed permission (via contracts) to act as an agent of the university, thus allowing exploration. This’s presumably why you’ll see esports teams that are established in some capacity sporting custom jerseys from places such as Arma Centrum and not the big four.
Esports licensing is a power struggle. Unlike traditional sports esports isn’t an ownerless abstract. Esports are proprietary owned intellectual properties. And believe it or not that means presentation and how every facet of the game is handle has to be negotiated. That includes a student-athlete’s ability to monetize themselves. Certain publishers have already raised concerns defending the right to self-monetization. Though while it may benefit the student-athletes. those particular negation lines may be less about the student-athlete more than it is about companies securing their ability to market effectively in the collegiate sector. Be mindful of the fact that popular student-athletes having an incentive to take to a streaming service such as Twitch also helps a brand promote, sell, and generate a richer following for its title.
This’s where the NCAA’s amateurism prohibitions surrounding external funding become problematic.
“ 22.214.171.124.4.3 Expenses from an Outside Sponsor. An individual who participates in a sport as a member of a team may receive actual and necessary expenses for competition and practice held in preparation for such competition (directly related to the competition and conducted during a continuous time period preceding the competition) from an outside sponsor (e.g., team, neighbor, business) other than an agent or a representative of an institution’s athletics interests (and, after initial full-time collegiate enrollment, other than a professional sports organization). An individual who participates in a sport as an individual (not a member of a team) may receive actual and necessary expenses associated with an athletics event and practice immediately preceding the event, from an outside sponsor (e.g., neighbor, business) other than an agent or a representative of an institution’s athletics interests (and, after initial full-time collegiate enrollment, other than a professional sports organization). (Revised: 8/26/10, 1/19/13 effective 8/1/13, 11/7/13; 2016–2017, NCAA Division I Manual, Page 56)
126.96.36.199.11 Exception for Receipt of Free Equipment and Apparel Items by a Prospective Student-Athlete. It is permissible for prospective student-athletes (as opposed to student-athletes) to receive free equipment and apparel items for personal use from apparel or equipment manufacturers or distributors under the following circumstances: (Adopted: 1/11/97) (a) The apparel or equipment items are related to the prospective student-athlete’s sport and are received directly from an apparel or equipment manufacturer or distributor; (b) The prospective student-athlete does not enter into an arrangement (e.g., open account) with an apparel or equipment manufacturer or distributor that permits the prospective student-athlete to select apparel and equipment items from a commercial establishment of the manufacturer or distributor; and (c) A member institution’s coach is not involved in any manner in identifying or assisting an apparel or equipment manufacturer or distributor in determining whether a prospective student-athlete is to receive any apparel or equipment items. (2016–2017, NCAA Division I Manual, Page 59)
“…there is FREEDOM in varsity esports.”
However, despite that semi-unfortunate truth, those type of negotiation lines cannot be swayed if a publisher is committed to them…after all, they do own the game. That directly translates into the need to adhere, because without publisher support sanctioned collegiate esports can not and will not exist in any capacity. The simple argument is that varsity esports avoids all the turmoil and quagmires associated with the NCAA and can take from the NCAA’s policies all the while dictating its own rule sets and bylines. That’s why there is FREEDOM in varsity esports.
Perhaps this is why we don’t see major conferences such as the PAC-12 and Big 10 including the NCAA in their esports-based initiatives. Esports presents a wealth of means by which universities stand to profit more directly than they have in the past. It makes sense for universities to actively a system that would bar esports all the while impeding potential cash flow from non-endemics. Though the lack of a formal governing body for esports at the varsity level leaves a wealth of questions regarding power dynamics within individual university structures and external relationships.
The UCI-Chung issue highlights the need to carry over some NCAA-type restrictions into a potential varsity system. Restricting a player to year-to-year terms will secure a university’s ability to remain competitive keeping the competitive sphere stabilized/uninhibited. The same can be said for bylines that require degree progression and GPA maintenance.
These regulations can be put in place all the while avoiding the hangups presented by NCAA bylines concerning amateurism and external competition. The ability for a player to compete at events at all levels (local, regional, national, and global) is paramount to both their individual growth and presence. As much is especially true for grassroots communities such as the Fighting Game Community (FGC) which thrive on external events as means to grow personal skill. Panda Global’s player Kitana Prime speaks briefly on the importance of work-life balance, FGC events, and training in his Gamestop vignette ‘Hometown Heroes’. A Collegiate-FGC conflict wouldn't necessarily be far off either considering that Robert Morris University recently announced that they are seeking to scholarship to their first Super Smash Bros. players (Source). Events such as: Combo Breaker, EVO, and DreamHack lend players a plethora variance in terms of players and styles to compete against. Stripping player’s ability to compete at events like DreamHack and punishing them should they perform well and earn money goes against esports’ foundational frameworks. All of which doesn’t even take into account the position event organizers can be put into should such regulations apply to esports student-athletes.
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Avoiding Title IX stipulations calling for the creation of both male and female esports teams that can cripple esports at the NCAA level is ideal. Varsity esports stands to leave the door open to co-ed teams and players of varying able-ness while cultivating a welcoming atmosphere that encourages the addition of both over years to come. As it currently stands the gender split between female and male esports viewership is roughly 50–50; play splits can at times reflect an 20–80 split or trend more closely to a 40–60 split. The reason for these kinds of split is presumably more cultural than not. In the tradition of encouraging cultural changes for our youth it would behoove us not to erect the same blockades that have impede sports such as baseball, softball, men’s soccer, and women’s soccer from evolving beyond the club sport level at certain universities. It is worth noting that female involvement in esports is at an all-time high with attention to the 46% of attendees at the most recent LCK (League of Legends Championships Korea) finals that were female with the overall age groups breaking down as follows: Teens (17%) 20’s (73%) 30’s (7%) 40’s (2%) 50's+ (1%; source).
Rather than further rambling on about the intracies surrounding Title IX and inclusive involvement at the collegiate level I feel as though that it’s more meaningful to point toward AnyKey’s exceptionally well written white paper ‘Diversity & Inclusion in Collegiate Esports’ (which can be found here.) This particular white paper is written by MIT’s own T.L. Taylor. Taylor is a well known researcher who specialises in researching the culture of gaming and online communities, with attention to esports, live-streaming, and MMORPGs. Taylor’s paper does an amazing job at explaining the opportunities collegiate esports brings to campus inclusivity in addition to providing well thought out policy suggestions. (If you’re interested in reading more of Taylor’s works concerning esports check out her book ‘Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming’, absolutely worth the read.)
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Incidentally, the ability to strategically apply particulars from the NCAA’s rule sets is arguably the most favorable aspect of approaching esports at the varsity level. The ability to work closely with universities to develop something that is fresh and true to the times is promising. This means that a true 501(c)6 varsity league can work hand-in-hand with individual university representatives, argue for changes in standard competition-based policy, and buck the trend set forth by the NCAA and allow student-athletes to monetize themselves and gain presence necessary to thrive in this industry. All of which extends to a university’s and player’s ability to put out request for proposal from endemic and non-endemics alike (though this is another discussion in-and-of itself). Varsity esports is gray and gray is okay when it can selectively take from the extremes of what is otherwise black-and-white.
To date, there have been several attempts to tackle the creation of a true varsity esports organizational body. Unfortunately the overwhelming majority of these organization only stand to curate a compendium of universities that participate in esports at the varsity level and serve no role greater than that of a glorified university esports Rolodex. Ergo…they miss the point of what an overarching varsity esports governing body SHOULD be and how it can maximize benefits for universities all the while presenting an equitable competitive field for schools as large as The Ohio State University and as small as Maryville University. These organizations love to tout around their members without really adding anything more to the space outside of their own forms of competition. These organizations exist simply to exist and don’t really address wholistic problems and needs that led to initiatives such as the one put forth by the PAC-12 last year failing.
In order to truly succeed and prompt necessary changes/adoption university esports requires multilevel structural development and implementations and cultural paradigm shifts if they are to succeed. The diffusion of innovations is a wonderful theory and aptly describes what we are witnessing transpire within collegiate esports and tells us where it will go in the next three-to-five years. We’ve already gone beyond the phase of “Innovators” and are currently seated in the “Early Adopters” phase.
First mover advantage will ultimately be the dynamic that dictates the best collegiate esports programs for the next decade. We’re still fresh into the early adopters phase and the majority of programs remain undeveloped. Assuring that these initial set of programs are well developed will be pivotal for a smooth transition to prompt a shift into “The Early Majority” adopting esports and the subsequent downhill snowballing of “The Late Majority” and “Laggards”.
Part of assuring that the early stages are well developed and that a proper framework is in place to prompt the development of latter stages will require a well structured collegiate varsity league to be in place. We already understand why a varsity approach to esports stands to be overall beneficial to esports over the traditional NCAA model as it eliminates unnecessary hurdles/pitfalls while simultaneously opening new doors. Rest assured that at the end of the day, when it comes to maximizing opportunities tied collegiate esports, varsity esports is the future.
Now, what a varsity league that takes advantage of all the benefits collegiate esports has to offer actually looks like, and how it needs to be built is another discussion for another day. What I will say is that collegiate esports is going to require a cultural shift in how we approach gaming, athletics, and student-athletes. That kind of cultural shift is going to challenge everything within collegiate sports, the NCAA, and policies regarding student-athletes.
With that I leave you with the following quotes from the late Steve Jobs.
“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”
“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”
The early majority of major public universities that chose to adopt esports in a meaningful way through varsity esports teams will be tasked with ushering in those culutral changes and championing innovations that will define gaming, collegiate athletics, and student-athletes for years to come. That kind of innovation WILL NOT come easy and it’ll require passionate leadership and an intelligible system that can be easily understand by the general public and simutaneously stand up to the NCAA, meaningfully.
“When given the option to lead or follow, lead, always; and when given the option to innovate or “wait and see”, innovate, always!”
Justin M. Patry
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Get To Know The Author
(Justin M. Patry — Pictured Left; Bonnie Ross: Corporate VP of Microsoft/Xbox, Founder/Head of 343 Industries, & CSU Alumna — Pictured Right)
Hi! I’m, Justin M. Patry, 26 years old and currently reside in Colorado. I hold two degrees a, M.S. in Public Communication & Technology (Colorado State University) and a B.S. in Psychology (Minor in Philosophy; University of North Carolina at Charlotte).
I have a foothold in nearly all realms of esports. I’ve competed in multiple games and genres over the past 13 years in games such as Gears of War, Street Fighter IV/V, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Dive Kick, and Overwatch (to name a few).
I’ve worked on developing collegiate esports for the past 8 years. I helped to create highly successful esports and fighting game community clubs at UNC Charlotte, and am currently further developing esports culture at Colorado State University through CSU’s Esports Association.
I’ve also spent the past 8 years working on esports events and research concerning online video game players and communities. I’ve worked on events such as Final Round, The Fall Classic, and various DreamHacks. Meanwhile, my research focuses on the mechanisms that drive the relationship between psychopathology and health outcomes among online video game players in search of therapeutic implementations for at-risk groups.
Over the past 2 years I’ve taken a heavier focus on building general infrastructures to aid in creating a sustainable platform for esports to grow upon. A focus which’s heavily centered around advising with various community, event, team, city/state, and collegiate components.
I love dogs, music, guitar, art, and Marvel comics — I have way too many Funko Pops! and Christopher Uminga art pieces for my own good! ❤
If you’d like to know more just ask! :)