When we created this media outlet as a journalistic practicum we set out to not only share some of our culture and interests but also educate our region in the landscape of our topic. This can pertain to trends, politics, administrative governance hurdles, and a lot more. While a lot of conversations on the subject of esports in the professional scene can translate into the collegiate space, some unique obstacles exist. One thing is for sure; there are a lot of people who try to classify, organize, and build esports programming only in the confines of preexisting structures. That approach lacks vision, stifles the potential monumental growth of this topic, and limits the opportunity many different segments could gain. I am no fan of the NCAA or the Big 12 in the context of esports and their current state of operations. That should be viewed as a massively positive stance. Why? A prime example is that the NCAA lacks governance for co-ed sports or activities for individuals with moderate to extensive disabilities. There are more reasons for my current stance, but something is compelling and humbling for me about watching a student fixated on competition while wearing his school colors. Take that classic imagery but for this moment paint it with that student in a wheelchair with only the use of one hand sitting next to both his or her female and/or male teammates united to win over their adversaries. That is the power of what esports can do in all segments, not just in the collegiate space. Until widely open governance that takes nothing away from this picture becomes available, I cannot support it.
The Big 12 Conference State of College Athletics Forum
On May 23, 2018, at the Statler Hotel in the heart of Dallas, Texas, the Big 12 Conference held it’s seventh open forum. My peer Vendor Relations Advisor, Kristopher Davis, Student President, Jack Counts, and I drove down. The topic of this specific forum was “Esports: Sports or Entertainment?”. The purpose of this forum was to start having a conversation in the Big 12 to paint the picture of the landscape across the collegiate space. This specific forum targets the hows, whys, do’s, don’ts, and struggles the panelists all represent on their journey to gain further formalization in the collegiate space. To set the stage for my opinions, interpretations, and experiences, let’s define who was in attendance. Their bios are linked below:
- Bob Bowlsby – Commissioner, Big 12 Conference
- Mark Cuban – Owner, Dallas Mavericks and Mavs Gaming
- Mark “Garvey” Candella – Director of Collegiate Partnerships, Twitch
- A.J. Dimick – Director of Esports, University of Utah
- Kurt Melchner – Executive Director of Esports, Intersport
- Michael Sherman – Collegiate Esports Manager, Riot Games
- Gene Taylor – Director of Athletics, Kansas State University
The University of Utah is an NCAA Division 1 school, a part of the Pac-12 Conference, and part of the highest level of collegiate football governance in the United States. They also proudly bare the designation as a power five school just like us. This is considered to be a flagship athletics program. This designation and subscription to the governing bodies enable more opportunity on our specific campuses. However, this also comes with heavy regulation, moderation, and control over how our business operates in the context of athletic programming. The University of Utah’s esports program was launched out of their college of engineering thanks to their strong game focused curriculum and a steller pre-existing student community pushing the agenda through example.
Robert Morris University – Illinois, is an NAIA school, has no strict governance like Utah, and launched their esports program out of their athletics department. I reference these two schools because there were members present on this panel. Kurt Melchner (RMU/Intersport) is considered one of the godfathers of collegiate esports having launched an officially acknowledged program out of RMU over five years ago. RMU and Mr. Melchner stood alone for quite some time before the energy we are starting to see had come to be.
A.J. Dimick (Utah) represents the other side of the spectrum where the hurdles of athletics at a power 5 school became all too real from the get-go. A.J. Dimick is a front-runner in trying to define how to operate as well as elevate the world around him for these large brands, organizations, and conferences, as we all quickly found we aren’t as agile as our smaller peers when we talk about athletics departmental foundations. Both of these two gentlemen represent big topics of research for any and all collegiate esports developers today. The point of this section is to highlight there is no cookie-cutter model in any conventional sense. The topic of esports can only be defined by the culture on your existing campus landscape. It is not entirely an “if you build it they will come” scenario. What works in California, more than likely will not work in the heartland and vice versa. This topic requires a macro view of student culture, political landscape, and to understand the resources that exist on your campus and communities to find a logical process to bring these programs online formally. Many of my peers have approached esports from the topic of competition which is an easily translatable topic to galvanize energies but does sell the dream extremely short.
Context for Attendance
Esports, just like traditional sports, is heavily business and journalistic oriented. A lot of our campuses across the states teach curriculum on these topics. Also, like traditional sports, the athletes at the forefront represent the 1% that make it, but what about the 99% of the rest of the industry of professionals, jobs, and career paths? This is why I continually scratch my head at the collegiate space of esports when I only see the word “Varsity” or “Competition” as 100% of their marketing and platform. Think bigger! The opportunities are still just barely being explored.
This past December, Commissioner Bowlsby called esports a misnomer in public forum. I understand the weight of defining esports as sports or entertainment, and we could spend all day trying to identify it. However, my struggle with that statement is that it writes off an entire exploding industry in a single sentence without hearing debate or fielding questions. This is especially true when the topic and workflow of esports development has so many similarities to the traditional models we see in sports organizations. So I walked into this forum with a premature animosity towards our commissioner. Luckily, the moderator addressed this incident within the first 60 seconds. This defused a lot of negative energy and cleaned the palette for the deep dive into the industry conversation to come. Allowing the commissioner to take ownership of his statement, express the fact that he currently doesn’t see the case for Big 12 involvement at this time, and now being open to at least hear discussion is a vast improvement over the December commentary. Most of those that are well into our developmental timelines now understand the NCAA and these conferences are less than ideal in their current state for serious implementation conversations on this topic.
At the end of this forum, nothing was decided upon, but a lot of the perspectives of the various journeys of each of the panelists was brought to light. It is not even remotely close to a yes or no type of conversation. My advice to anybody who is seeking insight into collegiate esports development is to reach out to us. Also, be open-minded. Allow yourself to be vulnerable to the context of unfamiliar territory because if you approach this with trying to make it fit in a preexisting shape, you will inhibit the true power of how this topic can benefit your university. I called A.J. Dimick (Utah) within a month of their formalized launch at the beginning of my research and before any of my implementation. We talked for just over an hour. Dr. Chris Haskell (Boise State University) immediately befriended me after their announcement and is considered a direct peer in development. Garvey Candella and Kevin Hoang (Twitch/Twitch Student) were one of the first partnerships we formed a week after we organized the students last September. Jarret Fleming (Maryville University) had just won University League of Legends and opened his entire world of development insight to me on the first interaction. Lastly, Michael Brooks (NACe), which represents the strongest candidate for uniform governance in esports, immediately helped me to network and connect the dots when I was starting. The one truth about all of this is we all need each other, and from my own experience, there hasn’t been a door of my peers I’ve knocked on in this space that hasn’t opened instantly to discuss our success and failures. This type of collaboration will only aid in the further rapid development of this topic across our campuses.
There were plenty of very high-level conversations addressed at this forum, ranging from gun violence correlation with gaming, funding, community, culture, Twitch, media, Title IX problems, and the great nullifier of inclusion and equality in the energies of this topic. All of these points will be platforms I will discuss in future articles as I become more public about my role in development at the University of Oklahoma. I will also highlight how our students and staff, as well as our programs, are working with people across the states just like this stacked panel of industry leaders on the topic of esports. As we head into the next school year, we hope to have our own exciting announcements and look forward to bringing new opportunities not only to our current student base, but also the communities in our region.