The Rundown: Collegiate esports companies and organizations prepare for the future following a COVID-19 bump

In early 2020, with college campuses shutting down across the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic, collegiate esports remained abuzz with activity. Unlike traditional physical sports, collegiate esports has no travel requirements and minimal risk of infection.

“Most everything still continued the same,” said Theresa Gaffney, head esports coach at Messiah University. “We just moved to a virtual presence.”

As traditional sports fields lay fallow, many schools managed to keep their esports programs alive, a contrast that Gaffney says generated attention for collegiate esports and helped maintain school spirit. “Your school still feels like a school if you have something to watch and cheer for,” she said.

But the collegiate esports space is not as streamlined as traditional college sports, which is administered by the all-powerful and overarching NCAA. Collegiate esports has a wide range of stakeholders, including the schools, competing leagues and the game developers themselves, each of which have their own goals and motivations.

Here’s a look at the current state — and potential future — of collegiate esports. 

The stakeholders

  • The governing bodies. In 2019, the NCAA’s Board of Governors voted against getting involved in esports on an organizational level, citing concerns over the male-dominated nature of esports and the extreme violence of some titles. This left the door open for esports-specific governing bodies, such as the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), which was founded in 2016, to expand. Gaffney believes that paying NACE dues helps legitimize collegiate esports in the eyes of skeptical or inexperienced university administrators. “There’s validation in saying, ‘hey, my program will be a member of NACE,’” Gaffney said. Other governing bodies in the collegiate esports space include the Electronic Gaming Federation, the American Collegiate Esports League and the Riot-Games-owned RSAA.

Growing pains and potential futures

As professional gaming becomes a viable career, increasing numbers of students are taking schools’ esports programs into consideration while applying to college, and NACE counts over 170 schools among its ranks. “It actually brings students in,” Gaffney said, “so I think that’s solid enough for colleges to keep going.”

But that doesn’t mean every popular esport is set to make waves in the collegiate space. Though Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is one of the most prominent esports, few collegiate leagues run Counter-Strike events. “We would likely never do a red-blood shooting title,” Barakat said. “Maybe some blue-blood titles, like a Fortnite or an Overwatch can make sense — they’re more animated — but without naming names, I don’t see us taking on the first-person shooter titles that are violent, with red blood.”

Recently, the shooter title Valorant has experienced some success in collegiate competitions. The Riot Games shooter builds on the more palatable combat of Overwatch, with magical weapons that stay far away from the realistic firearms and violence of games like Call of Duty. “We’re seeing a lot of voices in the scholastic space, both on the college and high school front, asking for Valorant,” Nausha said. “So we are actively looking into that.”

One reason why schools may have expressed skepticism about fielding teams in shooter titles is the NCAA’s aforementioned concerns over violent content. But with first-person shooters such as Overwatch now a standard element of college esports programs — and the number of female competitors on the rise — the moment seems as ripe as ever for the NCAA to make its presence in esports known. 

This could cause friction among the governing bodies that already exist in the space, but Nausha is confident that his organization will be able to work in tandem with the NCAA, if and when it dips its toes into esports. “If they were to ever come back, they know that they have to be working with the publishers, because of IP — it’s not traditional sports, it’s not a direct one-to-one,” Nausha said. “We’d absolutely be interested in having a collaborative working relationship with them, and that is true for others in the ecosystem currently.”

Regardless of how the collegiate esports landscape takes shape, each of the 10 organizations, schools and governing bodies that Digiday contacted for this rundown was confident that competitive gaming will — or has already — become a core element of the college experience. The rise in interest sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic simply accelerated an expansion that was already underway. “By hook or by crook, esports has proven it’s a valid presence on these campuses,” Gaffney said. “Students will play and will gladly give up their time, just like we used to do 10 years ago. That passion is still there.”

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