Story and photos by ALEX HALE
SALT LAKE CITY—Despite nation-wide hesitation about whether or not the NCAA should get involved in eSports, members of the University of Utah’s eSports program believe the organization’s involvement would bring much-needed resources and legitimacy to the world of competitive collegiate video gaming.
In December 2017, the NCAA announced that it would be seriously considering if it has a place in college eSports. Since then, many eSports athletes and faculty have been quick to express their distaste of the NCAA’s potential involvement. However, those at the University of Utah think differently. A.J. Dimick, the Director of Operations of eSports at the U, and Kenny Green, head coach for the U’s League of Legends team, both come from traditional sports backgrounds. They said their experiences with the NCAA were nothing but a good thing for them. They passionately believe that collegiate eSports only stands to benefit from the NCAA.
Dimick and Green have both observed that one of the largest sources of hesitation toward the NCAA’s involvement stems from restrictions that would be placed on monetized streaming. Currently, college gamers are allowed to earn money by independently streaming their gameplay to online audiences. Under the NCAA’s jurisdiction, the students would still be allowed to stream, but monetization would be prohibited.
However, the NCAA would make partial and full scholarships for eSports athletes more accessible than ever. In most cases, the money awarded from a scholarship would be greater than the amount earned from monetized streaming. There are only a small handful of streamers who earn enough income that they would be losing money if they demonetized and instead accepted a scholarship. Dimick called it “ludicrous” that people would push away the NCAA to protect streaming income that is “barely even enough to pay for a movie ticket every month.” He continued, “I want the most amount of resources for students who are passionate about eSports, and monetized streaming isn’t the way to do that.”
The U’s varsity eSports program already prohibits its students from monetizing their independent streams. In fact, the U’s team members already adhere to many NCAA-inspired regulations. Official team practices may not exceed 20 hours per week, they must be enrolled as full-time students, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and progress 20% of their degree within each season, and they are eligible for 4 seasons of play within 5 years of first enrolling. If the NCAA stepped in, “We wouldn’t feel stifled since we already follow a lot of the same rules” said one of the U’s eSports athletes. “Our program would just get better.”
Dimick and Green want to create a path to the greatest academic and professional success for their student athletes. The U is already doing what it can. For example, all competition winnings are collected by the university and put toward eSports scholarships. With the NCAA on their side, Green knows they can do more. “I want scholarship money for simply being involved, not just for winning. The NCAA can make that happen.”
Greater support from the NCAA wouldn’t just equal more scholarships, explained Green. It would mean access to better facilities, coaching, compensation, and greater research into proper nutrition and exercise. Even though athletes wouldn’t be allowed to market themselves with monetized streams, the NCAA would pour a huge amount of resources into promoting and fostering each athlete’s brand presence. If athletes want to go pro after college, the NCAA paves a helps them gain the recognition they need to break onto the scene.
It would also give the athletes a means to identify with their school that they’ve never had before. “For so long, gamers have been considered ‘other,’” said Dimick. “They deserve to feel like they’re part of the greater community.” If the NCAA officially welcomed eSports onto the scene of college athletics, Dimick believes the athletes’ passion and energy would be a favor to the university. Green agreed, saying “If the NCAA gives us the formal recognition we think we deserve, our sense of school pride and camaraderie will shoot through the roof. When we win, the entire campus cheers us on. When we lose, they’re helping us get back on our feet.”
Dimick believes eSports can finally find its place with the NCAA’s help. Currently, without a common umbrella like the NCAA to fall under, eSports programs are placed wherever they can fit. The U’s program resides in the academic department, specifically under Entertainment Arts and Engineering. Though some people from both ends of the traditional sports VS eSports spectrum would consider it a “cultural violation,” Dimick thinks eSports belongs in the athletics department alongside traditional sports. He observed that their needs and functions are similar, and the “nerds and jocks don’t mix mindset” is fading. “Why create an entirely new, identical program when we would already fit so perfectly within the athletic department?” he asked.
Dimick said, “If you’re trying to put college eSports on the biggest stage it can possibly be on and have resources devoted to eSports and the students that are interested in this, then you certainly want to explore NCAA membership and participation in college eSports.” For the faculty and students at the U, the NCAA and eSports are a natural fit. Green and Dimick encourage those who are skeptical to learn more about what NCAA membership, involvement, and regulation would really mean and to carefully weigh the benefits against the drawbacks.