The National Collegiate Athletic Association board of governors met at UCLA this week, and one of the items on their agenda was to discuss the landscape of college esports, or competitive video gaming. Over the past several years the world of esports has grown in leaps and bounds, with millions invested into professional teams – some of which are now owned by sports teams such as the New York Yankees and the Golden State Warriors. Meanwhile, universities like UC Irvine and the University of Utah are offering scholarships to prospective students who want to compete in tournaments.
In May, The Next Level estimated over $4 million was awarded in scholarships for playing video games competitively at US colleges, but currently no singular body governs the wide breadth of esports competition, or how to properly coordinate tournaments between schools.
Opponents of NCAA governance on esports see the institution’s model for amateur athletics as incompatible with current esports competitions, while others see the NCAA’s interest as a sign of the tremendous growth of video games competitions in the college space.
“I’ve talked to the NCAA multiple times,” said Mark Deppe, acting director of UC Irvine’s esports program. “My overall opinion is that they don’t have a say right now. Unless the game developers give up their power to dictate what happens in their leagues and their games, the NCAA has no authority to tell game developers how to run their tournaments.”
“Generally public opinion’s shifting on amateurism in traditional sports,” Deppe said. “I think it will shift more towards what we’re doing than what basketball and football are doing.”
Currently only a select number of games and tournaments offer competition for college teams. One such organizer, Tespa, organizes several tournaments in popular games such as League of Legends and Overwatch. Tespa also runs the Heroes of the Dorm competition in January, pitting players of the game Heroes of the Storm against one another, with the later rounds broadcast on ESPN. The grand prize for Heroes of the Dorm 2017 was $75,000 in scholarship tuition.
Robert Morris University Illinois was the first school to operate a scholarship program for esports. While they would not answer to the NCAA either way (the school’s physical athletics plays in NAIA competition), their esports founder and director, Kurt Mechler, believes that a unified governance is the way forward for college programs.
"It's a major win for collegiate esports that governing bodies such that NCAA are looking at it," Mechler said. "It provides credence to the effort put into it at this point. I look at it as a positive. I think for esports to grow on college campuses, there does need to be some sort of structure or rule set that are put in place."
At USC, esports remains a club activity, but its players take competition seriously. Eric Yu, director of competition for the club, was a member of USC's Heroes of the Dorm team this past year. He sees the struggle that it would take for the NCAA to bring together college esports, but the long-term benefits for a singular governing body cannot be dismissed.
"I would say that if the NCAA takes over the organization of esports, it's going to be very difficult," Yu said. "There's so many different rules, so many different games. But in the long run it will be helpful because you do want uniform rules and competition."
"If we want to put esports at the same level as football and basketball, it definitely would be useful to have NCAA regulate everything."
The NCAA did not respond to a request for comment on today's deliberations.