Varsity teams get a second chance at playoffs, clubs don’t — why?

Students in the Overwatch Collegiate Championship Discord server debated the fairness of a varsity-only Wildcard tournament.

The seeding tournament for Activision-Blizzard’s Overwatch Collegiate Championship (OWCC) ended last week. Maryville leapt past the dominant Harrisburg Storm team to nab the first place in Group 1, Pac-12′s very own Utah Utes yeeted past Boise State to win Group 2, and Mizzou trounced UCSD in Group 3.

The seeding tournament offered teams with 9-1, 8-2 and 7-3 records a chance to play for better placement in the playoff bracket, and all teams were still eligible for playoffs regardless of their performance. Northwood University, with a 10-0 record, did not have to compete.

But varsity teams — teams from schools with administration-backed esports programs — with sub 7-3 records still have an opportunity to nab a playoff spot if they do well in the Varsity Wildcard tournament. Club teams with the same qualifications are not eligible. It’s a controversial decision by Blizzard, and with a $51,600 prize pool on the line, some students and administration in the OWCC Discord were vexed by the varsity advantage.

“The winner in the end is gonna be Northwood or Harrisburg or etc, so there’s no point to really care about it as a mid elo club team. But then why does a mid elo Varsity team get extra chances?” said Rahul Sahetiya, a student at Georgia Tech, during a debate in the Discord chat last week.

Club teams constitute the bulk of the competition around the country. The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) has 175 schools signed up as members, while the OWCC had 1024 teams register for their tournament, with 307 actually competing.

“Grassroots efforts on campus are still major efforts, and people arguing that varsity is better than club because of ‘proper funding’ is an argument in bad faith,” said Ian Thompson, a former tools developer at Tespa, what used to be an esports league and tournament platform.

“Of course something properly funded will succeed more often than something that has nothing.”

Georgia Tech doesn’t have official administrative backing, according to club officers, and they fund their club primarily through sponsors and their SGA (student government) allowance. It’s enough to keep them afloat and able to compete around the countrybut for many people in the chat, their gripes against the varsity-exclusive tournament lay in its principle.

“It’s not just the second shot at playoffs, but the fact that an 0-10 varsity team can play in a bracket and still have much higher chances of making the final playoff bracket than a 7-3 club team is insane. It’s not a ‘small bonus,’” said Sahetiya.

But according to Jake Astin, the lead of Blizzard’s OWCC program, there’s intention behind the tournament’s varsity requirement.

“It’s important for us to continue to celebrate and highlight the schools that provide direct support and investment into building varsity programming… we design our programs and content to reward and incentivize schools for that commitment,” he said.

The Varsity Wildcard tournament is Blizzard’s attempt at growing the greater collegiate esports ecosystem outside the walls of their proprietary leagues, and rewarding schools who buy in. Some messages in the Discord discussion defended Blizzard’s tournament policy, not seeing a dramatic advantage for varsity teams.

“Since their schools are buying into it, and are seeing the value of esports not just from a competitive level, they get that small bonus.” said Daniel Nowaczyk, the director of esports at Kettering University.

“I don’t see how having a second shot tournament for those varsity schools is a “Drastic Advantage” personally.”

The hesitancy to offer varsity programs may have to do with the low returns on investment for the schools, according to Will Partin, a scholar who studies esports and the games industry at the University of North Carolina.

“I can assure you that they are not getting money off of media rights,” he said. “And if they are, it’s an incredibly small amount. The actual collegiate viewership is just not to a space where they’re able to charge any financially meaningful amount.”

Partin mentioned that the money being pumped into varsity programs right now is mostly coming from smaller colleges and universities, who are using esports to entice applicants. The process of growing a collegiate ecosystem, therefore, is somewhat slow going, especially when “It’s insane how long it takes any administrator to make a decision.” Publishers then have the onus of growing the scene themselves.

“The publisher is in a unique position to do the work of seeding interest into these ecosystems, and there are short-term losses for that. I don’t expect that to yield any tangible returns on capital anytime soon. But that’s sort of the nature of sports and these very consistent brands, they accrue value over long periods of time,” he said.

It’s the root of the college esports conundrum: the Catch-22 of an ecosystem big enough for substantial prize pools and publisher support, but not mature enough for schools to be jumping at the opportunity to invest in a varsity program, or for institutions like the NCAA to usher esports into its conference structure. This coupled with the still ripening competitive landscape, results in leagues like OWCC who host a format where every school in America that wants to compete is placed in a Swiss bracket.

However, there’s already talk of push towards a more traditional structure.

“We are currently planning and reviewing how conferences will be a bigger part of our future seasons and championships,” said Astin.

Other college esports, like Riot’s CLoL are also moving towards the partner system, though their main platform remains a large bracket separated by region. They’ve established partnerships with historic conferences like Big 10, Mountain West and Big Sky. Last Fall, Pac-U offered a series of exhibition matches for schools in the Pac-12.

Many people in the Discord conversation agreed with the idea that conferences would help push esports out to a wider audience, and boost visibility for teams regardless of their varsity or club status.

“Not to mention traditional conference play can convert traditional sports watchers to esports because many are interested in the conference and team more than anything. It’s a huge win long-term,” said Thompson.

Nowaczyk agreed, saying “I think just running them together, and taking the top 64 or whatever and going March Madness style is the best way. Skip an extra Varsity thing, just take the best teams.”

By the end of last week, the conversation reached its agreeable end, and the Varsity Wildcard tournament will continue tomorrow as planned. Playoffs are also happening… Will Sahetiya be correct in his Harrisburg/Northwood predictions?

Update 4/3 -- Changed “Collegiate Clash” to “College Championships”. The Collegiate Clash was a one-off event last summer + Fixed first paragraph to say “Mizzou trounced UCSD”. It originally had Mizzou beating Purdue, which was in the quarter finals