“Yes,” he said. “We can help with that.”
Right now, there is no N.C.A.A. for esports, even though competitive gaming is expanding quickly on college campuses. Last year, 40 colleges — a group that includes universities large (Utah) and small (DigiPen Institute of Technology) — established “varsity” esports programs, meaning they hired a full-time coach and staff members, designated an official arena, began recruiting prospective players and even awarded esports scholarships. To these universities, esports programs are as legitimate as the football team. Robert Morris University Illinois, for one, provides updates about its esports teams on its official athletic website.
But as colleges and even power conferences like the Big Ten and the Pacific-12 soften their stances toward accepting esports into a once-exclusive athletic fraternity, the primary organizing body for collegiate sports, the N.C.A.A., has lagged behind. It has yet to rule whether esports properly fits within its obdurate (some might say antiquated) framework for amateurism, equal opportunity and fair play, or if esports should even qualify as a sport.
For now, an N.C.A.A. spokesman said only that the organization had held discussions on esports, and planned to have more.
In the meantime, opportunistic grass-roots groups are racing to fill the void. One, the National Association of Collegiate Esports, began last summer as a membership consortium for six varsity programs to organize and establish ground rules. In a year, it has ballooned to 42 members, said Michael Brooks, a former N.A.I.A. administrator who joined the N.A.C.E. as its first executive director.
Schrodt’s Electronic Gaming Federation has focused on corralling the less official club programs around the country, in the hopes that when they one day gain varsity status, their colleges will affiliate with his effort. Nearly 70 programs orbit around Schrodt’s organizational vision, including those at Georgia Tech, Texas, Harvard and Columbia.
His plan, sooner rather than later, is to introduce a national tournament, something like a March Madness for esports, replete with sponsors, television airtime and crowded arenas. It all sounds like the well-trod N.C.A.A. formula, just without the organization itself. And if the trend continues, some warn, it might be too late for the N.C.A.A. to get in the game.
“I generally believe they’ll get beaten to the punch,” said Kevin Knocke, vice president at ReKT Global, an esports infrastructure services company. “I think there’s a real possibility of the N.C.A.A. missing the boat here.”
Schrodt is 25, with blue eyes, blond hair combed into an impressive faux hawk, barbell earrings and a scruffy beard.
If the picture sounds antithetical to the bureaucratic images of the N.C.A.A., it is intended as such. Schrodt’s vibe, and his vision, are primarily aimed at aligning with, and looking out for, students’ interests. His company hopes to propel the momentum of popular student-run esports clubs to the point that their colleges have to pay attention.
Competitive gaming on college campuses is not new. For years, companies like the Collegiate Starleague and Tespa — originally the Texas Esports Association — catered to self-organized groups as online hubs to compete in tournaments with other like-minded groups, or even season-long competitions. “We just wanted to create some sort of community on campus where gamers could get together and compete,” the Tespa co-founder Adam Rosen said. But over time, “these events grew and grew.”
As the events became more professionalized, drawing crowds and significant prize money, university administrations began taking the players and the teams that participated more seriously. That changed the tenor of college esports, but the framework to support a nationwide network had not arrived yet.
“There was just a lot of confusion about when leagues were starting, when competitions were going to take place,” said Bryan L. Curtis, an assistant athletic director at Columbia College of Missouri, one of the five founding members of the N.A.C.E.
Chris Allison, the coach of the esports team at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri, said there were times when he would spend days organizing a match, only to be undercut when the opposing team failed to show.
“That was truly frustrating,” he said. “A governing body really helps to provide some stability, so at least when you prepare for a match, that match is going to happen.”
But any governing body would be confronted immediately by a multitude of other considerations, including sponsorship, recruiting and eligibility issues but also liability and licensing, since the individual games are owned by corporations like Riot Games (League of Legends) and Activision Blizzard (Hearthstone, Overwatch).
Notwithstanding their more sedentary nature, gaming programs shared enough commonalities with traditional sports that administrators began treating them like other athletic teams, with coaches, managers, uniforms, round-robin competitions and even cheerleaders. Colleges recruit by “position” — if there is a need, say, for a skilled mid laner for League of Legends. The only thing missing was a league to get everyone on the same page.
That is the opening that Schrodt, who was a competitive gamer in high school, has tried to fill. But when he founded E.G.F. in 2013, as a sort of class project at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Schrodt and his partner, Rockie Hunter, struggled at first to explain their vision to bewildered administrators not well versed in the intricacies of gaming.
“We thought, Oh, what if we made it like true competitive sports?” Hunter said. “One of our advisers was like, ‘So kind of like the N.C.A.A.?’ We were like, ‘That makes it so much easier.’”
The administrators are starting to come around. After all, Schrodt said these students might not care about their college football team, but they still might want to feel school pride. When Makki said she had more than 200 students on her club’s email list — on a campus of 2,100 students — Schrodt seemed surprised the number was that low and offered to help build a website to attract new members.
Allison, the Southwest Baptist coach, said his one-year-old program’s biggest need is recruitment, and so the N.A.C.E. and the E.G.F. are working on ways to streamline the pipeline flowing from high schools to colleges and, eventually, to the pros.
It is not unlike what the N.C.A.A. does in any number of other sports. But despite a century of history to study, it is not easy.
A Gentler Guiding Hand
In certain respects, trying to organize esports can feel a bit like trying to establish law and order in the Wild West. The levels — high school, college and pro — are nebulous and chaotic, with college players earning money, high school players jumping to pro status, and pro players retiring early and returning to college.
Esports also has no universally accepted place on campus, forcing programs to seek support wherever they can find it. Some institutions run esports teams out of the athletic department, as at Columbia College. Others place esports under the department of student affairs, as at Illinois Wesleyan University. At the University of Utah, the first varsity esports program at a so-called Power Five conference sprang from the university’s entertainment arts and engineering program.
Besides the logistical challenge of balancing such an array of programs on the same level playing field, the N.C.A.A. has been eyeing competitive gaming warily, even as it recognizes activities like riflery, bowling and equestrian. When asked to comment on the organization’s stance toward esports, and whether it was considering future involvement, an N.C.A.A. spokesman said that the ruling board of governors had discussed the esports landscape at its August meeting and would most likely continue the conversation in the fall.
But the N.C.A.A. has begun quietly sending out feelers. It recently issued a request for proposal seeking a consultant to help research and potentially determine a course of action for college esports, according to three people who requested anonymity before the finalists were chosen by the end of October.
There is plenty about the way college esports is constituted now that would appear to conflict with the N.C.A.A.’s policies, not least its regulations regarding amateurism. College players earning money for participation in tournaments — some award as much as $30,000 — would be in violation of N.C.A.A. rules. (There is also a Title IX component, Brooks said; more than 90 percent of varsity esports players are men, though most programs are considered coed). And in the culture of esports, personal branding is vital on streaming networks like Twitch, which attracts 10 million daily users, according to a network spokesman. But the N.C.A.A. recently declared ineligible a kicker from the University of Central Florida whose self-promotional videos on YouTube earned him a large following and modest advertising revenue.
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