The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a member-led organization dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes.
The NCAA has been researching and considering the establishment of a framework for collegiate esports. While there were minor apprehensions regarding NCAA’s control over Collegiate esports, there was a general consensus that NCAA’s involvement could prove to be beneficial to the development of the scene. The vast amount of resources and expertise that would come from an NCAA involvement far outweigh the negative aspects of such a move.
Just like any partnership, the NCAA’s involvement had its set of pros and cons. The rigid NCAA rules can have a detrimental effect on the Collegiate esports scene. Denying amateur players from streaming their gameplay and earning revenue goes against the current practice in esports. However, judging from past experiences, the NCAA has played a crucial role in commercialising other amateur sports into multi-billion dollar industries.
The NCAA BOG meeting on April 30 voted unanimously to table esports for an indefinite period. The vote on the decision to develop an esports strategy ended with a 6-6 split. The NCAA had differing opinions regarding esports and its development in the college scene.
What is the NCAA?
The National Collegiate Athletic Association is comprised of member colleges across the nation. There are 1117 colleges and universities with 40 affiliated sports organisations. They organise nearly 100 athletic conferences and are crucial to maintaining the collegiate amateur scene in the country.
The NCAA has helped aspiring professionals climb the ladder and gain recognition in the collegiate scene. However, esports is very different from physical sports and would need a different strategy by the NCAA. With the rapid growth of esports, the NCAA was contemplating whether to admit esports into its fold. The April 30 decision is an unfortunate one, but it also opens up other avenues for Collegiate esports.
Problems with NCAA monitoring Esports
There were always many apprehensions regarding the NCAA’s involvement in esports. The NCAA rules and guidelines can often be conflicting with the present esports scene. At the same time, there is uncertainty regarding the NCAA’s relationship with game publishers. This is unique to esports since the current set of games under NCAA do not belong to a particular organisation. Here are a few problems for the NCAA’s involvement in esports.
Game Developers own the IP rights to the games
Esports is not just one entity, but it is comprised of multiple game titles. Games such as Dota 2, CS: GO, Overwatch, Call of Duty and League of Legends have different Developers. These companies own the games and have full control over Intellectual Property.
This is a very unique situation for the NCAA which does not have this problem with any of the other games. Basketball, football and other physical sports are not owned by any single company. This eliminates the need for the NCAA to license these games and they can organise events at the collegiate level. It cuts the costs by a significant amount for the NCAA. Not only is this economically viable for them, but they can also actually take credit for the development and growth of these games at the collegiate level.
The NCAA’s involvement in esports would essentially mean a partnership between the ‘for-profit game companies’ and ‘a governing body consisting of non-profit member organisations’. NCAA’s involvement in esports would require them to license the usage of the game from the game developers. However, the ultimate ownership will still remain with the game developers themselves. There would be a constant tussle between the NCAA and the game developers on a multitude of issues. We have seen instances when game developers such as Riot Games, Blizzard and Valve have stepped in to make changes and exert their influence on the esports scene. With no control over the actual game, how can the NCAA hope to exert control over the collegiate esports scene?
Developer Updates – Change the nature of the game
Every esports title requires constant developer updates from time to time. These updates are meant to provide a balance to the game and maintain a fair balance in these games. Since the Game developers own the IP to the game, it is their responsibility to provide constant game updates. The community also demands special in-game events and game modes to keep the game exciting for them.
There are two causes of worry for the NCAA when it comes to game updates. The developers update their games keeping in mind the entire player base. They want to appease as many players with new game modes, maps and characters in the game. However, from a competitive standpoint, this can often result in very unbalanced games. It is the job of the NCAA to ensure a fair competitive environment within their game. While we are sure they would have ensured constant communication with the game developers, it is unsure how much importance the developers would give to their feedback. The NCAA rules might often be a conflict with the game updates.
The second problem would be the involvement of the developers when it comes to their esports scene. Game Developers such as Blizzard, Valve and Riot Games have exerted control over their esports scene. While Blizzard and Riot Games have an overarching control over the entire esports scene, Valve’s involvement is quite limited in their games. Despite their low involvement in their games, Valve still exerts control over the broad structure of Dota 2 Esports. The Dota Pro Circuit was announced with the sole purpose of providing structure and stability to the esports scene in Dota 2.
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If the NCAA was to take a unilateral decision when it comes to collegiate esports in their games, there is a possibility for a developer to step in overturning any NCAA decision. In these cases of direct conflict, the final say would lie with the game developer. We have seen Valve and Blizzard step in to make decisions that affect the entire esports scene in their games. The NCAA does not face this situation with any other title under their belt. This might have been one of the biggest factors contributing to their decision not to be involved in collegiate esports.
Esports does not align with the NCAA’s vision ( for now )
One of the reasons for NCAA’s non-involvement in esports is the ‘violence’ in esports. This has been the fall-back for many traditional sports bodies as they still continue to try to enter esports. The Olympics Association also mentioned violence as the key obstacle for their participation in the esports industry.
We don’t particularly embrace games where the objective is to blow your opponent’s head off.
At first glance, this applies to some of the most popular esports titles, however, when we take a look at the range of esports games, we realise that the NCAA has not done its background study when it comes to esports. FPS games form a crucial part of the esports industry, but they are not representative of the entire scene. Games like Overwatch, Call of Duty and Counter-Strike Global Offensive are at the forefront of the esports industry at present.
However, apart from these FPS titles, there are many other games which form the backbone of esports. Games like Dota 2, League of Legends, Rocket League, FIFA do not involve ‘Blowing your opponent’s head’. Rocket League and FIFA are actually very similar to regular Football and have a thriving esports scene. In fact, many FIFA members have already invested and bought teams in FIFA 19 tournaments.
There is also the issue of widespread Misogyny in esports according to NCAA. The vast majority of gamers in esports are male and they dominate the casual gaming scene. Recently there was a huge controversy regarding the lack of female professional athletes in the Overwatch League. This does present a negative outlook to esports, however, on further analysis, this is a problem with sports as a whole.
This is not quite different from physical sports. In fact, games like Football don’t really have an encouraging ratio of male to female players. The issue of Misogyny in esports is not really a determining factor but an excuse for NCAA as stay out of governing collegiate esports for now.
NCAA’s involvement would entail changes to the monetisation for players
One of the biggest concerns for many in the gaming industry is the blanket imposition of NCAA rules and guidelines in their current form. The current set of guidelines are made specifically for physical sports and are drastically different from collegiate esports models.
Right now, any player in college can stream and monetise his gaming via online mediums. Websites such as Twitch and Youtube provide a means for gamers to publicise their gameplay and earn some revenue at the same time. If a player is extremely talented, there is a possibility for his pick-up by a professional esports organisation. He can play at the highest level of esports and earn a salary while doing so. While certain leagues such as the Overwatch League and LCS do require their players to be above 18 years of age, Dota 2 and CS: GO do not have such restrictions. Even in the case of the Overwatch league, players under 18 years of age can participate in various Overwatch Contenders and Open division teams. They receive a salary and have obligations to brands and stream their team’s sponsors in certain situations. Even if a player is not a professional gamer, he can still grow his stream, secure sponsorship money from various brands and further his personal brand.
In 2017, the University of Central Florida (UCF) asked its kickoff specialist, Oscar De La Haye, to take down his Youtube channel. The young player had already accumulated enough subscribers to start earning some Google Adsense revenue. Oscar chose to continue producing Youtube content, putting his own career to a halt. He is currently suing the NCAA for putting a stop to his professional career.
If the NCAA were to admit esports into its fold, it would definitely mean a drastic setback for many aspiring gamers/streamers who want to go professional. Many of these players might actually choose not to follow their dreams to go pro and stick to streaming.
The dream of going professional will remain just that
The definition of Amateur Gamers in college stems from the fact that they do not receive a regular salary from the teams. This is a definition that the NCAA has put forth, but there is no need for imposing the absence of a salary in order to proclaim someone as an amateur. Even teams at the lowest level in esports are paying their players a salary, although it might not compare with the Tier 1 teams. The NCAA, comprised of its members ensures that these players do not receive a salary if they are to be a part of collegiate esports.
This will directly impact the search for new talent and upcoming stars in esports titles. Many of the biggest names in esports started their careers when they were in college and very young. The players got noticed due to their skill levels and they were a part of the top teams in these games. Some of the most familiar names such as Nisha, S1mple, Flamie & Get_Right started their careers at a very early age.
If NCAA were to involve itself with esports, it would have to relax its rules on amateurism. This was a fundamental change to their rules and guidelines, something that the NCAA would be unwilling to do in their current state. If the NCAA does relax its rules specifically for esports, it would inadvertently raise lots of complaints and questions from athletes in other sports titles. The preferential treatment for esports is not feasible for the NCAA in its present form. If they want to include esports, it would have to mean a fundamental change in the rules and the daily working of the NCAA.
Keeping up with the times
Esports is unlike traditional sports and is constantly changing and evolving. People are ready to watch others play and we see Esports constantly adapting to new technology on the go. We already discussed how game developers exert control over the nature of their games. The constant developer updates might be an impediment to the game’s esports section itself.
However, when organisations which are non-endemic to esports enter the scene, it becomes difficult for them to keep up with esports. The fast nature of esports and the speed of evolution within esports is unnatural for many of them. There are constantly new games and new modes coming up in esports and their respective titles. As Lurppis states in an interview to The Dailywalkthrough, a game like Overwatch which did not exist a few years ago now has a professional esports scene.
Overwatch didn’t exist 18 months ago and I’m offering scholarships for it today, and if a game stops being played, we’re not going to offer that for scholarships. I don’t see that in the NCAA today, where they’re cutting games that lose popularity and adding games as they emerge. So, I think that would be a challenge also, is moving at the speed of esports. Again, this operates at market speed, so if kids are playing games, they care about it, there are people wanting to watch it, that’s when you want to jump on and create a program, create scholarships. You can’t wait until it’s past its peak and on the way down. Moving at the speed of esports is something any organizing group is going to struggle with. That’s why my opinion is the game companies should, and will, choose to operate their own leagues for each of their games because they have the most to gain if it’s successful and the most to lose if it’s not.
Tomi “Lurppis” Kovanen
Big organisations can often fall prey to Red tape and various bureaucratic hurdles in making key decisions. When a game like Fortnite can become an overnight success, we cannot fault companies for not foreseeing the success of the Battle Royale genre. After all, just a few years ago, it would be impossible to predict the massive success of the Battle Royale genre.
Will an organisation like NCAA keep up with the ever-changing landscape of esports? After all, it is already taking them so many years to accept esports’ inclusion in the collegiate scene. Even today, the NCAA declined to include esports in the collegiate scene and have further moved away from the current trends. With the constant barrage of new games and every new game trying to establish an esports scene, it will be tough for the NCAA to keep pace with esports.
The current governing body for Collegiate esports – NACE
The NCAA’s involvement in esports would have provided legitimacy to the collegiate esports scene. However, there is already a body governing esports and competitions at the collegiate level. The National Association of Collegiate esports ( NACE ) was created similar in structure to the NCAA. It pertains specifically to Collegiate esports and counts several NCAA members as its members. We already have 42 of the 46 existing varsity programs across North America as members of NACE. The National Association of Collegiate esports already does for esports what NCAA does for sports. The governing body concerns itself with transfer rules, academic eligibility, the actual competitive structure, roster sizes, Title IX advisements (read this article on TitleX by EsportsObserver), scheduling of regular, post-season competition amongst others.
For now, NACE will play an integral role in the development and growth of collegiate esports. Esports is slated to reach over $1.8 billion in revenues by 2022. It is impossible for colleges and universities to ignore esports completely especially with its widespread popularity amongst today’s youth. Whether it is the NCAA or the NACE which will govern collegiate esports, colleges and universities will want the development of esports on campus. They do not want to be left behind as esports continues to grow and establish itself as a legitimate industry.
Riot Gaming creates ‘College League of Legends governing body’
— Ben Fischer (@BenFischerSBJ) May 17, 2019
Following the NCAA’s decision not to involve itself in collegiate esports, Riot Gaming has already announced the formation of a ‘College League of Legends Governing body’. This governing body will remain wholly owned and controlled by the company. Its structure will remain similar to the other leagues owned by the company ( LCS and LEC). This governing body will be the liaison point for colleges looking to secure buy-in for the matches. In addition, it will also help foster the organisation of conferences and facilitate coordination across bureaucracies. According to the SportsBusinessDaily, this body will also be an external advisory board made up of college sports and higher education experts.
Will companies like Blizzard and Valve step in?
It is no surprise to see Riot Games step in to take control of the League of Legends collegiate program. However, League of Legend is just one of the multiple esports titles in the esports scene. There are other games such as FIFA, Dota 2, CS: GO, Overwatch which form an integral part of esports today. One of the biggest differences between esports and physical sports is that companies actually own the Intellectual property to esports titles. No one in NCAA has any experience in dealing with the game owners. Since traditional games are more of a brand than property, the development of these games has sustained itself over the years. But when it comes to esports, governing bodies need to add another element to the equation. Game developers have worked hard on their games and have the ultimate control over these titles. Unless we have a governing body which can get the biggest game developers under its ambit, its influence will remain limited.
Blizzard already controls its professional esports scene via the Overwatch League. We will expect them to play a larger role in the development of collegiate Overwatch after the NCAA decision. However, Valve does not take a very active role in the esports scene of its games. CS: GO is one of the most popular games in esports and Valve has very minimal involvement in the same. Third Party tournament organisers are constantly running huge tournaments with massive prize pools. Valve’s decision to let the scene grow organically has worked very well for them so far.
Game Developers can help esports grow without losing its identity
With Esports not falling under the NCAA ambit, it will preserve its unique identity. It will continue to be the fast-paced new kid on the block. With millions of dollar in investment, esports is continuing to grow. However, it will not be slowed down by the innumerable and often archaic rule-sets of traditional sports. Esports requires a unique approach and we hope that NACE and other organisations can understand this approach best.
It will be interesting to see the different approach to collegiate esports by multiple game developers. Each game has to be looked upon as its own entity instead of clubbing all games under the title of esports. We cannot have a single strategy in place for the development of collegiate esports, simply because of the different approach by each developer. NCAA’s decision not to involve itself with esports comes out of necessity as well as self-imposed limitations due to its rules and guidelines. While it is unfortunate, it also opens up a chance for esports to grow organically and write its own rules when it comes to a structured Collegiate environment.