Club teams lead by example as major conferences test esports waters

The Big East is exploring esports through a partnership with ESL. It is just one of several major conferences exploring esports at the moment -- although most are taking very different approaches to testing the esports waters. Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire

During PAX East, a gaming convention that descends on Boston every year, students from across Ivy League colleges had an announcement to make.

Among all the chatter at the convention about new games and cosplay, the students were sending out news releases about their initiative. They had created a new esports organization to get a head start and compete against some of the best colleges around the country.

They were ready to announce the Ivy Esports Conference.

While universities such as Brown, Dartmouth and Cornell are prestigious for their reputations in academics, all have lagged behind in athletics. It's usually the larger state schools that have excelled in the areas of ball-throwing and hurdle-leaping. But collegiate esports, be it scholarship-sponsored teams or club organizations, is relatively new, and the metrics for what determines a good esports athlete are different than that of a football player.

This opens up competition to a wider array of students -- and ways for schools to recruit those students. Athletics departments and colleges are now looking to esports as the next thing to attract top academic talent, prompting esports support starting with the Big Ten's Riot Games partnership in 2017 and continuing with the Big East's hosting of an esports competition with ESL in 2018.

The Big East Conference was one of the first major organizations to put its weight behind ESL, the largest independent esports league. The Big East Invitational featured Rocket League and League of Legends tournaments between marquee Big East programs.

"We are closely monitoring the growth of the various organizations involved in esports," said Vince Nicastro, the deputy commissioner and COO of the Big East. "In fact, our staff has been working on this project for just over two years."

At the moment, the collegiate-esports space is a mixed bag. Some schools have only student-run clubs, some have organizations outside the athletics department and some have programs fully integrated within athletics departments.

"In addition to the student-run conferences and outside organizations, the various game publishers may begin taking more of a leadership role in the development of a competition governance structure," Nicastro said. "The collegiate-esports space continues to be quite fragmented, and it seems a bit premature to predict how things will evolve over time."

The Pac-12 is an example of how those strategies might fail -- and, with a different approach, succeed. In May 2016, the Pac-12 announced it would be the first athletic conference to jump into esports, but those plans were scrapped; two years later, there had been no progress toward a conference-sponsored league. That's when students at Pac-12 schools decided to make their own conference. They created PACG, an organization that would help organize and spearhead esports across 11 of the 12 PAC campuses.

"Athletics departments do not know where to start with this. They think this is alien to them, and frankly, they are mistaken," said A.J. Dimick, the director of esports for the University of Utah, which sponsors a varsity esports program. "They always want to know who the experts are, but they are the experts, and esports is not different from what they already do."

The goal for Dimick is to prove there's an audience for collegiate esports. And PACG has acted as a way for students to have more control over the content.

While PACG was formed to prove the power of esports to universities, the Ivy Esports Conference isn't out to prove something to head honchos.

"The biggest misconception that collegiate esports organizations advertise is that the end goal for esports clubs is to get university support or recognition," said Willy Lee, the student commissioner of the Ivy Esports Conference. "Students and clubs too quickly give up on their unique opportunities and opt to prioritize university support. The Ivy Esports Conference, while not opposed to receiving university support, is fundamentally different because it empowers student leaders to develop a sustainable conference model that better supports video games on campus."

So, the Big East has partnered with ESL to dip its toe in the world of esports, while the Pac-12 and Ivy League school have decided to do it themselves. Does that mean there are no official athletic organizations trying to make esports happen at the collegiate level? Not at all.

Already, the Division II Peach Belt and Big Ten have started competing in esports, and the Division II East Coast Conference is set to begin later this year. The Big Ten announced a partnership earlier this year with Riot Games to stream collegiate competition through the Big Ten Network platforms. Each school will also receive $35,000 in scholarships to be distributed to students.

The question on everyone's minds is: When will the NCAA want a piece of the action? It's an exciting prospect in that it would further legitimize esports in the world of athletics, but it's frightening, as the NCAA tends to have a heavy hand, with strict rules that some argue are exploitative of college athletes. At present, the National Association of Collegiate Esports, which is partnered with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the National Junior College Athletic Association, is the de facto governing body for college esports at a varsity level.

At the moment, however, university or NCAA backing isn't entirely necessary. Publishers such as Riot and Blizzard Entertainment are more than willing to support student-run clubs and organizations with scholarships and resources, usually in partnerships with leagues such as the Collegiate Star League. For the publishers, university clubs are acting as an impromptu development league for its larger, worldwide leagues.

"With esports being in a dynamic place, it is too early to speculate as to how the competition may or may not be governed in the collegiate realm," Nicastro said. "It's clear that the NCAA is paying attention to esports but hasn't determined a position on it yet. NACE [National Association of Colleges and Employers] has done an good job building a governance structure in the collegiate space, but it's difficult to predict how that will play out."