- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 23, 2018

When Byron Hinson arrived to unlock the door at the “grand opening” event of the Catholic University of America’s new esports program, he was astounded.

“There were 15 people here before I even started the event,” said Hinson, the program’s student president. “And then there were upwards of 30 people in here, hanging out, playing, really interested. It was really rewarding to see, after all this work, a lot of people are very interested and really want to participate.”

At the end of January, Catholic will begin playing against rival schools from the Division III Landmark Conference in a “League of Legends” competition. Just like in basketball, softball or any of the other 10 sports the conference sponsors, there will be a regular season followed by a championship tournament.

Esports — the field of competitive video gaming, which has spiked in popularity and revenue this decade — has taken root at some colleges and universities around the District in 2018. Esports is not yet an official NCAA sport, and in the early years of the field that some describe as “chaotic,” there are more questions than answers about what’s in store for the sport’s evolution.

Still, industry professionals are optimistic about how much esports still can grow, and schools are getting creative in order to offer esports as a new way to connect with the student body’s interests. Chris Gaul, the director and head coach of the new esports program at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), explained why colleges and esports are a natural fit.

“Those are the kids that grew up on esports,” Gaul said. “Instead of watching football on Sundays, they were watching esports. It’s just kind of been in their lives.”

Catholic, NOVA grow their programs

NOVA hired Gaul as a full-time employee at the start of the fall semester. With dual titles, he balances a variety of responsibilities.

As coach, he schedules scrimmages and competitions and oversees 2- or 3-hour practice sessions during the week in the team’s facility — a room on NOVA’s Annandale campus. As director, though, he’s also in charge of marketing the program and working with the department in charge of intramurals.

At NOVA, esports is a varsity sport — information about the team can be found on the athletics department website, like any other sport. But the school also wants to give opportunities for students not skilled enough for varsity to participate in intramural contests.

NOVA has 22 players across its varsity and JV teams after about 60 students showed up to tryouts, Gaul said. Meanwhile, Catholic has eight members on its competitive team so far.

Catholic is working out of a different structure than NOVA. At Catholic, it’s not under the umbrella of athletics; it’s not quite a club and not quite an intramural sport yet.

But the Cardinals have turned a room in the student union building into the de facto esports facility. It features 10 gaming computers with room to add two more. They have ergonomic desk chairs and a few big screens that can handle intramural console competitions on the other side of the room.

Wendy White, Catholic’s director of fitness, recreational sports and wellness, said it’s been “a new world for me” to help the student organization get off the ground.

“It’s been so fun to work with the students building this program,” White said. “Each week I feel like we grow in this area, just trying to figure out what is next.”

The IP challenge

Though some aspects of esports make it easy for colleges to adopt — for instance, it’s easier to set up an esports room than to install a new turf field — there are unique challenges, too. The popular titles, the ones players gravitate to, go in and out of fashion. Playing “Fortnite” requires different knowledge and a different number of team members than, say, playing “Overwatch.”

Most importantly, unlike traditional sports, corporations own the intellectual property of the video games they publish.

“If you’re doing something like basketball you can just make a league. No one owns basketball,” Gaul said. “But when you’re doing something like ‘League of Legends’ you have to ask permission to use ‘League of Legends,’ and if the company who owns ‘League of Legends’ is doing their own thing, they don’t have a lot of incentive to say, ‘Yeah, go ahead, use our brand to do something that we’re doing.’”

That’s exactly what’s happening. Riot Games — the publisher that owns this multiplayer battle arena title — started running a collegiate “League of Legends” tournament in 2014. A team of University of Maryland students, representing the Big Ten, has reached the final bracket in each of the last three seasons.

Riot has begun sponsoring the Landmark Conference, which is why Catholic’s team can play “League of Legends” against its rivals in 2019. Catholic will compete for a chance to advance to the national tournament.

The arrangement works for now, but not everybody agrees with it.

“Riot’s very public opinion on this is they want to own the collegiate space. They don’t believe that there should be a grouping of institutions on the other end of the conversation,” said Michael Brooks, executive director of the National Association for Collegiate Esports (NACE).

As the NCAA begins sniffing around esports, the IP question isn’t the only sticking point.

Can esports fit within NCAA?

New York Business Journal reported in November that the NCAA was exploring whether it should sponsor esports as a varsity sport. Brooks sees a few “significant issues” with that idea.

For one, the NCAA takes a firm stance on its athletes maintaining an amateur status and not profiting from their skills. But in the esports world, some college-aged players are making a living off their gaming abilities. They can stream themselves on the website Twitch and rake in advertising money, win tournaments with prize purses and coach other gamers for an hourly fee.

For another, there’s the question of Title IX. Brooks said the esports world is “overwhelmingly male” right now, but some teams have a few women that play alongside mostly men. Given the NCAA’s Title IX regulations, would women have to play on separate teams, would there be enough women to make the sport coed or would they be shut out altogether?

Brooks wants the NCAA to follow suit with two smaller bodies, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and National Junior College Athletic Association, in acknowledging NACE. As he put it, “Two of the three traditional athletic governing bodies recognize NACE as the governing body for esports. We hope that the NCAA will be joining that group soon.”

Despite the hurdles, people like Hinson and Gaul would like to see the NCAA get involved in the field.

“I’ve seen other organizations that aren’t related to the NCAA create the same type of framework and really work with that,” said Hinson, who was previously an NCAA athlete himself, playing football and running track at Catholic. “It’s just another way to bring interest to your school, not only to get a different type of athlete, really.”

Gaul said whether the NCAA sponsors esports or recognizes NACE as the governing body, something more official would lend legitimacy to the sport.

“It’s important that in the future, hopefully the near future, esports gets an official governing body, so there isn’t this sort of weird, wishy-washy area of what’s to be taken serious, what’s a varsity program, what’s considered a club program,” Gaul said.

But for those who can’t grasp how video games can be considered a sport, these gamers would like you to keep an open mind.

“They’re very team-oriented,” Gaul said. “I think the very popular esports like ‘League of Legends’, like ‘Overwatch’ … these games are games that are comprised of a number of different people filling a very niche role in that team to build this well-oiled machine and to succeed in a common goal.”

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