The National Collegiate Athletic Association, better known as the NCAA, will look into esports at its October board of governors meeting.
It already held “a preliminary conversation last week,” ESPN reported. Esports veterans didn’t take well to the news, with multiple high-profile figures like Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles, Tomi “lurppis” Kovanen and ESG Law founder Bryce Blum tweeting to essentially tell the NCAA: Don’t even think about it.
What the NCAA does and doesn’t do, and wants to do, can be confusing.
The NCAA regulates almost all college and university athletic programs — and their student athletes — in the United States. There are currently 1,123 member schools. It hosts 98 “voting athletic conferences” and has “39 affiliated organizations,” according to the NCAA website. It pulled in a total revenue of $966 million for fiscal year 2016, according to USA Today, and “incurred $1.4 billion in expenses.”
There are over 40 esports programs across American campuses and esports revenues are projected to be well over $1 billion annually by 2020. Both of those numbers are going to continue to grow, as are scholarships, degrees and business opportunities.
The Daily Walkthrough reached out to analyst and former professional CS:GO player Tomi “lurppis” Kovanen, National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) executive director Michael Brooks and University of California, Irvine Esports acting director Mark Deppe to get their thoughts about the NCAA becoming involved with collegiate esports. The Brooks and Deppe interviews have been lightly edited for brevity.
The NCAA did not get back to TheDW in time for publication. This article will be updated pending the NCAA’s response.
Tomi “Lurppis” Kovanen: “The athletes are not allowed to earn a dime.”
“To expand on my thoughts from Twitter, I don’t think the NCAA can add any value in esports, I don’t think it would serve a purpose in esports, and frankly I think esports is better off without it. Allow me to elaborate below.
“Key difference between traditional sports and esports that is often overlooked is that esports does not require heavy infrastructure investments, which the NCAA helps pay for colleges. Likewise, the entry barriers for individuals are small, as one only requires a computer/console and an internet connection, further separating the two. Finally, games are broadcasted online via streams to unlimited viewers for free, so the NCAA could not offer significantly larger visibility to players either.
“There is no NCAA-equivalent in Europe, where the youth instead develops through club teams — the same structure that is currently used in esports. In addition, the North American clubs are currently some of the financially strongest, meaning there is little incentive for any promising player to hop over to the NCAA, when plenty of funding exists elsewhere with better conditions. There is also no dominant exclusive league in most games, meaning the NCAA has limited partnership possibilities.
“The NCAA is currently widely considered to be bad for the young athletes — some go as far as to call it predatory. While billions of revenue is generated through the various NCAA sports, the athletes are not allowed to earn a dime. In fact, many have gotten into trouble over the years for as little as receiving shoes as gifts. Compare that to esports, where nothing (save for certain events’ age restrictions) limits your earning potential no matter how young you are.
“Some of the world’s best players in esports are young and an NCAA-like entity would cut off some of their arguably more limited earning potential (careers are unlikely, as of today’s knowledge, to run into late 30s). In sports few players are physically developed enough pre-college to go to the pros (making a similar-level competition their best option), but the barrier does not exist in esports. No sensible 20-year-old would switch free tuition at a college for potentially making hundreds of thousands in their club team.
“It’s understandable why the NCAA wants to get into esports, but I frankly don’t see it being able to enter the space. Their only play would be giving scholarships to players they cannot monetize in any material way (due to the best certainly staying away), and I have a hard time seeing that happen.”
Michael Brooks: “They could literally legislate it to death.”
Q: For the National Association of Collegiate Esports, what are your thoughts on the NCAA looking into esports?
A: We knew it was coming. We actually spoke to their researcher long before any of this information was public. Really, no surprise to us at all. In fact, it makes sense that the NCAA would at least start researching, which is what they’re doing right now, just researching to figure out what’s going on in terms of esports and higher education. So, in terms of that, really no surprising news on our end. The interesting thing is, and this is obviously where we knew when this information got out there, we knew that people would start making all sorts of assumptions out there … Really, the NCAA just launched one individual researcher who has gone out to try and figure out what the space looks like in such a way that they can present it to their council of presidents, and now they’re taking it for further review.
Yeah, you know, I think it would be a little bit afflicted. I think if the NCAA did come in to help administer varsity esports, I think in terms of the expertise and the resources they could bring to the stage, that would be immense. At the same time, I understand because my background comes entirely from governance of traditional athletics here in the United States, I understand the immense amount of complexities that would be immediate, though, depending on how the NCAA could potentially try to fit itself into esports if it wanted to. It wouldn’t be able to fit within the NCAA according to their own constitutional bylaws right now. That’s not just a hurdle, that’s a mountain to climb right there just to even have any discussions about esports within the NCAA’s umbrella.
Q: Can you expand on the NCAA bylaws issues?
A: There’s issues around competitive experience, around amateurism, around Title IX and particularly around the structure the esports programs have developed. That all would restrict the NCAA from operating within esports as it is now. These are all issues either in their constitution with amateurism or in their bylaws that the NCAA would either have to basically rewrite for esports or they would have to issue exceptions specific for esports to carve it out separately than any other traditional sport program. That is a huge endeavor to cross.
Q: People are worried the NCAA is just coming in to shoulder people out of its territory.
A: Believe me, I’ve heard that too. I’ve worked with individuals at the NCAA over the last 8 years, they’ve got a lot of good people in their offices. They’re not necessarily the monsters they’re made out to be on a day in and day out basis. But you’re right, there is a huge concern about, ‘What is their interest in the esports space?’ If it’s purely around monetization then that’s an incredibly negative standpoint to look at when coming to esports, and I think culturally people will call them out for that and resist. Especially if you look at our member schools, depending on the size of the school or whether it’s a school or a conference. I mean, these institutions have developed their esports programs to explicitly keep the NCAA out. These are programs that are not, for the most part, based under the athletics department. They’re not being designated as sports on campus. They’re co-ed, which adds some different implications under the NCAA banner than outside the NCAA banner.
If you look at even the conferences, the big time conferences such as what the Pac-12 was trying to do or what The Big Ten did, is this was more or less driven as a media, content acquisition as opposed to an actual athletic endeavor by the conference or the individual institutions. This is a very complex situation where the groups who are already in the space have been keeping their eye on the NCAA and then putting up as many walls as they can simply because, I think, for the most part, in the collegiate industry everyone wants to give it the chance to grow, and grow organically. It’s growing incredibly rapidly on its own. But there’s a big concern that if we over legislate this, if we add too many rules and restrictions, that there is the potential to kind of smother collegiate esports, at least again at the varsity level, at the scholarship level, to smother it and then to put it out as a potential growth avenue. They could literally legislate it to death.
Q: Something TheDW has been hearing is, if the NCAA were to get involved, how would they deal with the fact that players would want to make money streaming and that they’re not going to want to be regulated?
A: Culturally, it’s not a nice, easy fit to take esports and try to make it fit into the cookie-cutter traditional athletics approach. Even some of the biggest paradigms are completely flipped around in esports than in traditional althetics. If you are a basketball player, football player, and you’re a male, we know your body will not stop growing until you’re what, 26? Twenty-eight? So, it behooves you to stay longer, and in fact, the NBA and NFL require you to stay out for one year or a handful of years depending on what sport we’re talking about because your body is still growing. So, you’ll come out as a better player simply because you had more time to mature, you had a chance to compete and practice at a higher level. But in esports it’s totally flipped around.
We’re looking at potential players starting out when they’re 17, 18 years old and their careers ending at 25, 26 years old. So, if you are a skilled player and you want to compete at the very best, the very highest level you can, in esports right now you’re incentivized to entirely skip college. You wouldn’t even spend a year in college because you’d lose valuable time when you could have been competing at the professional level. And then you have even basic things. It’s incredibly normal right now if you’re a highly skilled player that you’d have your own Twitch stream, for example, where you’d have subscribers. Perhaps you’re at a partner status with Twitch so you’re monetizing against ads, those are just inherent to esports right now and how content is distributed. Because it has kind of been brought to the masses, I don’t know how the NCAA would try to put the genie back in the bottle. Especially since, I think I’m safe in saying, the general public has taken more and more of a negative stance of how the NCAA treats amateurism now. The idea that it would basically restrict all of this across the board for collegiate esports, I think is just another fight and another reason for people to call out the NCAA on how it tries to monetize against the actual students participating.
Q: Would you say that, perhaps, while the NCAA could bring massive resources–
A: The amount of expertise the NCAA could bring to bear would be staggering and incredibly welcome and beneficial to the entire ecosystem.
Q: But do you think it’s worth it?
A: I’m not too sure. I would say yes, if they came at it at a more open approach than they have typically taken with any traditional sport. Historically, I’m very familiar with how the NCAA operates and they do try to do well on behalf of their member institutions but there’s always that, and I’ll say this, I always feel like there’s that nagging kind of tug of ‘How do we monetize this or reduce costs in comparison to where our real revenue streams exist?’ If that’s the driving force, that terrifies me. So, it really depends on their stance and how they would view esports in relation to how traditional athletics has been run in the last century here in the United States. I personally don’t see how the NCAA could bring in esports under its umbrella without, one, creating systemic changes to the way the organization operates, in which case I’m thinking, you know, if I was sitting in the NCAA’s offices and I was looking at the exemptions that would have to be written in order to incorporate esports as it is now, then that’s a real struggle to say, ‘Why does esports get, why do students in esports get the chance to monetize against their skill? Why are they able to go win additional scholarship funds through tournaments that the publishers host or other third-party event organizers host? I’m unable to do the same in basketball or football or a mainstream sport.’
Q: The NCAA would have to consider that if they did try to acclimate in esports, that would open the floodgate for complaints from their other sports?
A: Absolutely. That’s such a tough position to be in to say, ‘Why are those individuals able to monetize against their skills but I am not able to?’ I think the claim of hypocrisy in that situation would be immense and I think that would invite greater exploration and investigation by other groups out there to explore whether the current amateur model is something that is healthy or sustainable after that point. If we look at the creation of NACE, that was created explicitly by the varsity programs, the institutions with varsity esports programs that existed last July, and that was formed separately from the two existing athletic organizations in the U.S., the NAIA or the NCAA, simply because the bylaws of those two organizations don’t allow for esports, at least not as esports is right now.
Q: NACE already does a lot of the things the NCAA would want to do in collegiate esports, correct?
A: The traditional governance issues such as transfer rules, academic eligibility, the actual competitive structure, roster sizes, Title IX advisements, scheduling of regular, post-season competition. Those are all areas where, depending on the sport and the, whether you call it collegiate or professional, that a governing body typically finds itself involved in. And certainly that’s where the National Association of Collegiate Esports finds itself now. As of right now, 42 of the 46 existing varsity programs across North America are members of NACE. We are a non-profit membership association similar to the NCAA or the NAIA of the United States.
So, I have no doubt the NCAA could bring in a vast amount in terms of resources, but at the same time, I’m neck deep in this, I live and breathe this day in and day out and I know just what an immense struggle that would be to want to get to an area where the NCAA could even touch esports. And then secondly, how do you deal with publishers? The NCAA has zero experience, nobody really has any experience on ‘How do you deal with someone, an organization that actually owns the sport or activity that you’re doing?’ That is a curve ball for all of higher education to deal with.
Mark Deppe: “I have no concerns with them exploring the potential, the possibilities.”
Q: What are your general feelings about the NCAA discussing esports?
A: I’ve thought a lot about the evolution of college esports and where it’s headed. I think it’s good for everyone to think about it and talk about it. I have no concerns with them exploring the potential, the possibilities. I’m very supportive of any ecosystem that’s great for college esports and games, so if they’re able to create that or if someone else can create that, then great, I just think there are a lot of challenges.
Q: What do you think those challenges are?
A: I recommend people look at esports not as a broad thing of all video games but think of them as independent, privately-owned, intellectual property games, that way. Just maybe do a thought experiment: All these companies have worked really hard to create this content. They own their material, they can control distribution rules, tournaments, whatever they want. So, I guess, trying to understand what value a third party organizing group would have, whether that’s creating tournaments or guidelines or distribution. But my overall sense is that the companies who control this stuff one, have the competence to do it, and have the motivation in that, if they’re successful, they can make a lot of money that way. If you look at esports as individual games that companies own, I think it makes sense, in their best interest, to control that.
Q: Esports players want to be paid, they want to be able to monetize themselves. That would be a huge issue within the NCAA.
A: I firmly believe that esports will operate more on a market basis, like supply and demand. Therefore, there’s demand for high-level talent and people want to see the best players. There’s going to be a budget and, yeah, I think there will be pricing always in esports, I agree with them there. So, yes, I do think that’s a challenge for anybody … If that’s a requirement of the NCAA, it’s another one of those major hurdles I think they’re going to have. Especially given the fact that they’re fighting some of those in traditional sports right now.
Q: If the NCAA won’t move on monetization, do you think they’ll just move aside or do you think they’ll say it’s their domain?
A: I guess my question is, how do they do that? What do they tell universities? ‘Shut your doors’? I don’t see them having influence there. Any organizing group can say ‘We own this,’ but they don’t own it. The game companies own it.
Q: Pros and cons of the NCAA being involved?
A: Pros? They create an ecosystem with rules that everyone should abide by. You can argue whether those are good rules or bad rules, but I think structure is important. I think game companies can do that.
Cons? I don’t think esports fits the traditional collegiate NCAA model with the amateurism. The other thing that I think people also need to be conscious of is that esports moves very quickly. 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’s 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.
Q: What are you hoping for the future of college esports?
A: I want to see healthy, sustainable growth. I want more schools to offer programs, but I don’t want people to jump in with unrealistic expectations and then cancel the programs after a few years. I want people to get in for the right reasons, I’d love for it to be a community-led endeavor where you’re building something that your gaming community wants and will appreciate and support. I think operating on market forces where you create a product, esports programs, that deliver what the masses want, I’m excited. I don’t necessarily have a horse in the race, I just think there are certain challenges that will prevent a third party from running collegiate esports as a whole.
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