This past week NCAA president Mark Emmert addressed his annual convention and asked his audience a rhetorical question: Should the NCAA regulate college video game competition, aka varsity college esports? 

As of today 128 colleges, small, mid-sized and large, belong to the National Association for College Esports (NACE). With few exceptions—Georgia State, Miami of Ohio, the University of Missouri and the University of Oklahoma the more notable—these schools  offer no scholarships in NCAA varsity spectator sports. But these 128 schools collectively award $15 million in scholarships for varsity college esports.

The origins of college esports remind me of the early days of women’s college basketball. From 1971 through 1982 women’s sports were not regulated by the NCAA. They had their own association, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). During the first three years of AIAW women’s basketball, small and large schools could compete for the national championship. Immaculata College, a small school in Pennsylvania, won the first three national titles.  Immaculata made more final four appearances (six) than any school of any size  before the AIAW ceased operations.

Today Immaculata competes at the NCAA Division III (non-scholarship) level in women’s basketball. The NCAA Division I (scholarship) women’s basketball championship is won regularly by larger schools such as Notre Dame and UConn.

The good news: women’s basketball is a higher profile sport under NCAA management.

The bad news: you need to have the resources of a UConn or Notre Dame to play for a national championship in front of a television audience. 

I hope that the same does not happen in varsity college esports, if the championships ever get to TV.

Esports play on a level playing field-for now.

There’s good news when small schools can be on a level playing field with larger schools: the size of the school doesn’t matter when the rules of competition apply to everyone. In the early days of the AIAW student-athletes could transfer freely between schools, programs were initially forbidden to offer scholarships and to recruit off-campus. Your team came from within your student body. That’s much the same with college e-sports today. In the early years of the AIAW student-athletes on athletic scholarships were forbidden from championship play. That’s not the case with college esports today. Scholarship and non-scholarship esports athletes compete against each other and side by side. 

To date the larger schools have not ponied up for full-ride or full-tuition scholarships for varsity e-sports though they have made significant investments in venues, infrastructure and computing power. Miami of Ohio awarded two scholarships, $4,000 apiece, last year. The program raises the money for scholarships. But the university also provided the lab space and the computer infrastructure to make an esports arena after the university won its first national championship.  Oxford, Ohio should be remembered for decades as ‘Ground Zero’ for the beginnings of high-profile varsity college esports.

What could happen in the future? 

For now I must believe that the facilities will make more of an impression on prospective student-athletes than the money. Whoever has the most toys may win the battle for talent when two of more schools are on a student’s short list.  But I can imagine that NACE would not want college escorts athletes to remain on scholarship too long when there’s more money for scholarships in the future.

I can also imagine that many student gamers would be excited at the prospect of being recruited by colleges to play video games.  But I hope that colleges will not admit an e-sports athlete based on their talents at the game, unless s/he would be admitted on their academics, too.

What is the competition for varsity college esports?

The real competition is from the game makers themselves. Nothing stops them from hosting multi-player tournaments, inviting all comers to compete for money and prizes, and nothing stops a varsity esports athlete from competing. The best talent in college esports can go console to console with freelancers who play for the money.

The first time an association like NACE  tries to stop them, the legal battle can be long and drawn out. The esports athletes might call it an internship and win their case.  

Is gaming your ticket to college? Let’s talk about it! Comment below or contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com 

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