Esports are coming to colleges across the nation and sooner rather than later. At least 39 American universities currently have varsity esports programs. That means scholarships, facilities and coaches directly supporting esports. At many other schools, esports are clubs with varying levels of institutional support.
The University of Utah just became the first school among Power Five conferences to sponsor a varsity esports program, complete with a roster of 33 students who will serve as players and student coaches and compete in Overwatch, League of Legends, Rocket League and Hearthstone. Each player receives a $1,000-per-year scholarship and will play against North American club teams and 50 other scholarship esports programs.
A.J. Dimick is the Director of Operations for Utah Esports. At 38 years old, Dimick is an old man in the esports industry. Previously a sports radio producer in Salt Lake City, he is familiar with the inner workings of collegiate athletics and has a unique perspective on where esports can fit in to the industry. A segment of the esports community is against NCAA involvement, but Dimick thinks there are three notable areas where it could benefit collegiate esports. While Dimick understands the difficulties the NCAA faces in esports, he believes the benefits are being left out of the conversation.
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Dimick: “If you are at a school that already has an esports program, then sure it might not do much for you. But, if you are at a school with big gaming presence but no institutional support, then you have everything in the world to gain from NCAA involvement. The amount of students at schools without esports programs drastically outnumbers the ones that do.”
There are currently 278,178 students spread out over 37 schools that offer varsity esports programs. In fall of 2017, 20.4 million students will be attending an American university. This means that just 1.3 percent of the entire college population will have a chance to play varsity esports. Seventy-seven percent of the students who do have access to a program come from one of seven schools: Georgia State (50,972), Utah (31,860), University of California Irvine (31,551), Columbia University (31,317), University of Miami Ohio (24,505), Boise State (22,259) and Ball State (22,186).
Students drive collegiate esports, which are student-run organizations at most campuses. These students are tasked with convincing administrators, many who have never heard of esports at all, to give them the necessary funding.
The NCAA, for its faults, has been the governing body for collegiate athletics since 1910. Every school has dealt with the NCAA and understands how things work within its framework. While Dimick describes the organization’s legislation as “draconian” at times, NCAA involvement would facilitate conversations about esports and the creation of esports programs around the country.
“There’s a lot of administrators at a lot of colleges everywhere that don’t understand what this is yet,” Dimick said.
“They don’t know what Twitch is, they don’t see esports streamed in media…there’s so much educating to be done for college administrators. (The NCAA) is instant legitimacy, and a template by which to be involved that those high administrators will understand.”
Dimick: “People are drawn to sports by a notion of tribalism, that’s what draws people into stadiums, and that’s what college esports has to offer. Its already prevalent in college sports, if we put the college marks on someone’s chest, people are going to be able to identify with it. Pro esports have had to grow that organically, and this is the push that could get esports accepted by a mainstream sports audience.”
As of right now, esports organizations struggle with a branding problem. Most consumers of the game identify with certain players and not their overarching organization. It is rare to hear someone say they are a fan of Cloud9 or Team Liquid.
By aligning esports teams with universities, having a favorite team becomes much easier. In the case of Utah, there are nearly 32,000 total students currently enrolled and more than 200,000 living alumni. The average American fan may not care about OpTic Gaming vs. EnvyUs, but they will care about Utah vs. BYU.