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Are We Witnessing The Dawn Of Competitive Intercollegiate eSports?

By Dr. Steve Dittmore

Is it finally time to talk about eSports and its potential impact on college sports?


I ponder this question as my 13-year-old talks excitedly about the new “season” of Fortnite. Is eSports really here to stay? Consider these headlines from the past few weeks. Revenue from the uber-popular game Fortnite surpassed $318 million in May 2018, a record. Earlier this month, Goldman Sachs projected overall eSports revenue to grow to nearly $3 billion (!) by 2022. Perhaps because it needed to fill summer programming hours, Disney doubled-down on a commitment to showcasing eSports when it recently announced a multiyear agreement to air the Overwatch League across its family of networks throughout July.


With revenue projections approaching 10 digits, it is no wonder eSports is grabbing the attention organizations such as the International Olympic Committee and the NCAA which are seeking ways to get in on the fun. The IOC will host an “Esports Forum” in Lausanne, Switzerland on July 21 with the objective of setting “a platform for future engagement between the eSports and gaming industries and the Olympic Movement.” Even the NCAA seems focused on the industry, dedicating a significant portion of its spring 2018 issue of Champion magazine to a feature story about the Peach Belt Conference’s League of Legends championship, won by North Georgia College.


The level of seriousness with which the NCAA and college athletic administrators consider eSports certainly depends on a number of variables. There will be new expenses if universities choose to offer scholarships, develop facilities, and purchase uniforms. But, as the NCAA’s Championpiece suggests, the potential rewards for dipping into the eSports phenomenon might outweigh those expenses. The piece notes Robert Morris University in Chicago received 3,000 inquiries, and 2,000 applications to the school, within two weeks of announcing the creation of an eSports team with 35 partial scholarships.


Academic research on collegiate-level eSports is, like eSports itself, just emerging. Central to any conversation about eSports as a legitimate intercollegiate activity is the determination of whether it is, in fact, a sport. Legal scholars from Florida State University and St. Louis University jointly tackled this issue in a February 2017 article in Journal of Legal Aspects of Sport. The authors, led by John Holden, now a professor at Oklahoma State University, note how the determination of eSports as a sport would have implications ranging from Title IX concerns to governance issues to broadcasting, sponsorship, and intellectual property ramifications. They compare eSports to competitive cheer and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Biediger v. Quinnipiac Universityand conclude “it is possible that eSports would satisfy the factors identified by the government for components present in recognized sports under Title IX.”


Earlier this year, Sport Management Review, the leading peer-reviewed, academic sport management journal based on impact factor, devoted a portion of February issue to topics germane to eSports, including the question of whether eSports is, or is not, a sport. Texas A&M University professor George Cunningham and his colleagues evaluated the following five characteristics (as developed by Rodgers, 1977) to consider when evaluating whether eSports is a sport: physical activity; requiring skill; competitive in nature; level of stability; and institutional organization. They conclude all of those characteristics are present in eSports, with the possible exception of physical activity.


Adding to the discussion, Bob Heere, now at the University of North Texas, expressed concern about the socio-economic implications of accepting eSports as sport in his piece for the Sport Management Review. Specifically, he cites a 2017 academic study from University of Alaska-Fairbanks professor Peggy Keiper and associates in which they peg the percentage of women identifying as eSports fans and/or players at 30% of the market. This gender imbalance would certainly suggest the concerns of Holden and his colleagues about Title IX implications are real.


Further, Heere emphasizes the accessibility of eSports to all people, regardless of socioeconomic class. Because esport participation requires purchase of gaming console, a television monitor, high-speed internet, and the game itself, it is possible certain populations might be excluded. Could eSports wind up the domain of other perceived higher socioeconomic sports such as field hockey, lacrosse, tennis, and golf?


So how did we get to this point, where the conversation about a varsity intercollegiate eSports team is not merely fantasy, but reality? One might point to the moment in October 2014 that HBO Real Sports’s reporter Soledad O’Brien profiled Robert Morris University in Illinois and its varsity program. In reviewing that segment for the online gaming site, Daily Dot, Samuel Lingle remarked that RMU “has all the trappings of a professional squad: coaches, a film room, multiple teams for in-house practice and an increased pressure to perform for starting players.”


Indeed, the facility aspect is something which colleges athletic departments will need to consider. It probably isn’t necessary to go to the lengths Arlington, Texas has and build a $10 million eSports building in the middle of its entertainment district, but some dedicated space, with ample seating for spectators, would be necessary. Spectators? Yes. More than 20,000 tickets to the Overwatch League Championship at Barclays Center in Brooklyn sold out in two weeks. This is the same event which ESPN will air on its networks. Need more evidence of potential audience? That Goldman Sachs report referenced earlier predicts 300 million viewers for eSports by 2022, roughly the same number as the NFL.


The facility need won’t be limited to competition and practice facilities. The addition of a varsity eSports team will likely strain existing facilities and resources such as medical and athletic training. Los Angeles doctor Levi Harrison, profiled by Variety this past May, says one-third of his client base is now made up of eSports and gaming clients, leading him to trademark the term “eSports doctor.” Harrison notes the pro career of an eSports player spans from 16 to 23 years of age, if the player is consistent and has not been injured. Indeed, 18-year-old Erik Tammenpaa of Finland pocketed $50,000 in prize money for being crowned champion of the inaugural NHL Gaming World Championship.


This age range raises additional concern with eSports at the intercollegiate level how it fits, if at all, with the NCAA’s “collegiate model”. Many gamers generate significant revenue off the hundreds of thousands of viewers who tune into their Twitch livestreams or YouTube videos. This audience is made up primarily by tween-aged boys. If you don’t know about this phenomenon, ask your 11-year-old who Ninja or DanTDM is. This past February, former University of Central Florida kicker Donald De La Haye sued UCF and the NCAA for, ostensibly, forcing him to choose between his YouTube business or being a college football player. Odds are strong that eSports players will have the same concerns.


There also many potential benefits for an athletic department to sponsor an eSports team. As mentioned earlier, RMU received 2,000 applicants with weeks of announcing the creation of a varsity team. Additionally, Keiper and her colleagues noted in their 2017 study the potential positive impacts in the form of revenue generation, Title IX compliance through near “infinite” participation opportunities (despite the low number of females participating in eSports), and increased diversity. On the latter point, they note Korean and Asian-American players are well represented demographics in the eSports space.


As for the eSports players themselves, eight scholars published an exploratory study in January 2017 examining a potential “new” type of student-athlete. The study, led by Claire Schaeperkoetter, now a professor at Northern Illinois University, concluded that despite “public perceptions of eSports as non-athletes” and a lack of social capital between the eSports team and other teams in the athletics department, eSports athletes had “high levels of athlete identity and also high levels of social capital within the insular structures of their team.” The authors point out that for the athletes interviewed, eSports was an influential driver in choosing to attend their university.


Finally, there is growing synergy between established pro sports leagues and their video game counterparts, for a myriad of reasons. As NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman notes, “We want to use eSports to build more interest and a greater connectivity to our game through the hockey video game. It’s complementary.” Similarly, the NBA’s 2k league aides in growing fan engagement with the league on a 24/7/365 basis. NBA players have become increasingly concerned about ratings and how their virtual selves are depicted in the video game. Certainly, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ entrance into the space last fall raised the perceived prominence and importance of eSports.


With professional sports leagues embracing eSports, can growth at the intercollegiate level really be far behind? We are beginning to hear from people who view intercollegiate eSports as a quasi minor league training ground for the professional leagues, akin to how the NBA and NFL benefit from college training when they acquire player assets. It is possible today’s high school kid dreams of a college scholarship to play video games in the hope of one day turning pro. What a time to be alive.