By David A. Moreno Jr. and Alvin Benjamin Carter III, of Brown Rudnick
In 2014, Kurt Melcher, an associate athletics director at Robert Morris University, called up an executive at Riot Games, which publishes the popular video game League of Legends. The reason? He was laying plans to form the first collegiate esports team.
“This is such a team-based game, why couldn’t we go and treat it like baseball, like basketball, like soccer?” Melcher wondered. “Get the best players, scholarship them and bring them to our school.”
In six months, he’d done just that, finding sponsors to fund uniforms, a facility, and 35 partial scholarships. Three thousand inquiries to join the team flooded Melcher’s inbox; 2,000 new students applied to the school. Fast forward to 2021, and hundreds of others have followed in Melcher’s footsteps: the National Association for Collegiate Esports (NACE) now has over 170 member schools that together have provided more than $16 million in esports scholarships.
One might think, given all this interest, it’d be the NCAA in charge and not a newcomer like the NACE. But in 2019, the NCAA officially chose not to govern esports. Their primary justification, according to Melcher – who is now the Executive Director of Intersport, which led the task force responsible for persuading the NCAA – was their “inability to get past the fact that gamers might come to college after earning money, have a personal brand already built in their streaming following, and could easily have a sponsorship deal in place…prior to accepting an NCAA scholarship.”
In other words, the NCAA chose not to govern esports because of their amateurism definition – a definition they amended this year with their new name, image, and likeness (NIL) policy. Though the full impact of this decision on collegiate esports is still uncertain, new questions and opportunities appear to be on the horizon: Will the NCAA rethink its stance towards collegiate esports? What benefits and lessons might this offer esports? And what can esports – which has long allowed young players to profit of their name, image and likeness – offer the NCAA?
The NCAA, NIL, and esports: a brief primer
As noted above, the NCAA chose not to govern esports in 2019. While the amateurism definition was a key issue, the committee also cited potential Title IX issues (esports is a male-dominated arena) and the violence of certain video games. As of now, only 8.2% of collegiate esports gamers are women, but interest is there: one study shows roughly half of women gamers participate in video games that belong in the esports category.
In light of the NCAA’s decision, other esports leagues have cropped up, including the NACE and the Electronic Gaming Federation (EGF). These organizations permit gamers to license their names, images, and likenesses to sponsors.
Now, the NCAA is allowing their players to do the same. Their interim policy (active July 1, 2021) allows student-athletes to sign NIL licensing deals from third parties but prohibits pay-for-play (i.e., universities can’t pay students to play for them) and impermissible inducements. These rules are of course superseded by various state laws – there are 19 thus far and more on the way – and NCAA schools might have their own NIL policies as well.
No matter the specifics, one would expect that with the amateurism issue out of the way and esports’ popularity surging (especially amid the pandemic), the NCAA might reconsider their stance–creating new opportunities, benefits and learnings for the NCAA, esports, and the students and schools who participate.
What the NCAA can do for esports
If the NCAA does to choose to govern esports, there could be a number of benefits to esports, including:
- Better regulated competition. The NCAA has extensive experience and resources when it comes to providing fair competition, standardized rules, and compliance. These are not insignificant issues when it comes to esports, which has been wrestling with drug testing and cheating matters.
- Improved diversity and inclusion in esports. If the NCAA were to govern esports, schools would be under more pressure to tackle the Title IX issues inherent in a sport so dominated by men. The NCAA, which is familiar with these issues, could help esports and participating schools take steps in a positive direction – while also implementing measures to facilitate safer environments for women gamers.
- Ensuring the overall wellbeing of student gamers. The NCAA’s mission statement focuses on students-athletes’ wellbeing and academic success. It could institute and enforce rules that would help ensure student gamers are not lagging behind academically or walking into potentially exploitative deals. The latter is already happening at the school-level in response to NIL policies: the athletic department at Nebraska, for instance, recently launched education and support for its athletes in this respect.
- Improving esports’ reputation and legitimacy. Though esports has fast become a legitimized sport – especially amid COVID-19 – the NCAA’s participation would go a long way towards legitimizing it even further, while also creating opportunities to increase its exposure and reach. Perhaps there could be even something akin to a traditional sports draft that helps create a more structured way of becoming a professional esports gamer.
What esports can do for the NCAA (and its member schools)
The NCAA – and the schools it works with – could also greatly benefit from esports on various fronts, such as:
- NIL policies. Gamers in esports have always had the independence to license their names, images, and likenesses. Now that the NCAA has agreed to allow its student-athletes to do the same, they could look to collegiate esports for guidance and best practices – especially in this interim period.
For example, this experience could shine a light on issues that may arise with conflicting deals. As Melcher describes, “I knew if we were going to have a successful program, we would have to honor the existing partnerships the players came to our school with. If we had a mouse deal with the program, we would exclude that student from the mouse company deal if they had a competing mouse deal and make sure that player was not of any promotions that would cause conflict with his existing deal.”
- New partnerships and recruitment opportunities for schools. Esports opens up entirely new avenues for partnerships (and recruitment) that could benefit universities the NCAA serves. The University of Kentucky, for instance, has partnered with JMI sports for the naming rights for their new esports facility and struck a deal with established esports franchise, Gen.G.
These deals show that NIL policies don’t have to come at the expense of university partnerships and revenue. As NACE’s director told the Washington Post last year, “Whether the esports team is part of the athletic department or the engineering school, we believe esports’ success is due to its flexibility, allowing the school to obtain sponsorships while encouraging the gamers to develop their own broadcast channel and licenses. It is all about helping the athlete build their personal brand, which in turn aids the college in the long run.”
Much remains to be seen when it comes to the NCAA and collegiate esports. But one thing is clear: esports’ momentum shows no signs of slowing down. The same could be said of student-athletes’ desire for NIL opportunities.