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Utah’s new esports program could pave the way for paid college athletics

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Utah is the first Power 5 school to offer a varsity esports program.

Southern Utah v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

The popularity of competitive video games (colloquially known as esports) is booming, and colleges are beginning to take notice. Last year’s League of Legends Worlds final had more viewers (43 million unique viewers in 18 different languages) than Game 7 of the NBA Finals (31 million). Esports in general brought in 323 million viewers in 2016, according to a study, and is projected to bring in nearly 600 million by 2020.

UC Irvine and Robert Morris were two of the first American universities to offer esports scholarships and have been among the most dominant collegiate programs in the country since. Even bigger athletic programs like Florida State have started offering esports classes, and the Big Ten Network recently partnered with Riot Games to televise the BTN Invitational, the first Big Ten League of Legends season (Maryland swept Illinois 3-0 in the final).

Now the University of Utah has joined the fray, with one of the biggest collegiate esports investments to date.

The school recently announced plans to launch a varsity esports program, with partial scholarships to start and plans to eventually have over 30 full scholarships. The school will start with a League of Legends team, and eventually expand to three other video game titles to be named in the coming weeks.

“RMU and UC Irvine are pioneers in collegiate esports and have made this an easier journey,” A.J. Dimick, director of operations for Utah’s esports program, told SB Nation. “Creating an esports program at a Power 5 school is uncharted territory, and I suppose we'll find out how it compares. We're definitely excited to find out.”

So what does a varsity esports program look like?

Similar to any other sports program, you’ll have players and coaches, as well as facilities (high-powered computers with good internet connections are a must, as are quality chairs, keyboards, and mice). One big difference: coaches will likely be a part of the scholarship count, rather than hiring from the outside, because of how young industry expertise skews (those knowledgable enough to coach are likely college-age or a little older).

For Utah, it’s a pretty natural fit. The school has one of the highest-ranked video game design programs in the country, and the Salt Lake Tribune says the school’s competitive gaming club, Crimson Gaming, has blossomed to over 600 members since being founded in 2013.

Crimson Gaming
Photo via Utah EAE

“We've had unbelievable support from the administration and President [David] Pershing,” Dimick said. “We have a thriving game club in Crimson Gaming and we have the Entertainment Arts & Engineering program, which is a world class game development program. Those two things have elevated the presence of gaming on this campus and made this really possible.”

Utah’s program is a boon to esports’ legitimacy nationally, but one question looms for anyone who follows college sports: What about the NCAA?

In esports, especially for games without organized league structures (like Super Smash Bros. Melee), there are frequent tournaments all around the country. Many offer prize money. If you’re good enough to consider playing competitively, you can make money from a young age by playing in local and national events.

It’s not just money from prize pools, either. For talented esports players, money-making options include sponsorships from esports-friendly brands like energy drinks or software companies, jobs with professional teams, and even full-time content creation through streaming services like Twitch and video platforms like YouTube.

That last path should be of particular interest. With Twitch, fans can donate money directly to players.

It’s one of the main sources of income for many professional players, and some players do it full-time instead of playing on a team. The NCAA might see a donation-based playing service as a problem, especially if more programs start and the best prospects become sought after by multiple schools. Seeing how college football fans act toward recruits on Twitter, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which fans of UC Irvine and Utah try to convince a top NBA 2K38 or Street Fighter XXIII prospect to attend their respective schools through competing donations on the player’s stream.

The NCAA won’t be involved with Utah’s esports program, according to Dimick, but Utah will still have an amateurism policy: any money earned with the team will go to the esports program’s scholarship fund, but otherwise, players are free to earn as they will.

“We want to make sure they are students first, but we want to do everything we can to support them for being willing to represent the University,” Dimick said.

Dimick has high hopes for the program, which he says has gotten positive responses on campus from administration and the student population.

“People who aren't familiar with esports regularly underestimate how big it is and how big it is on college campuses, and after announcing, I've come to the realization that maybe I have, too,” Dimick said. “The reaction we've had on campus has been staggering and bigger than I imagined. We are thrilled.

“I think esports will continue to grow into becoming a mainstream college sport. The growth of it is undeniable, and I think combining the popularity of esports games like League of Legends with the built-in fan bases of college teams could make college esports huge.”

If varsity esports blossoms, will the NCAA want a piece of it?

The NCAA has historically gone to great lengths to prevent college athletes from receiving outside money, despite multi-billion dollar TV deals for its biggest events. Utah’s esports players will be allowed to earn outside money — if the NCAA eventually wants in on the revenue, would that require a change in policy?

Any attempts to de-professionalize varsity esports would almost certainly hamper programs’ ability to recruit top talent. If you want to invest in a program with 30-plus scholarships (more than any varsity sport besides football), you’ll want to attract the best talent, right? But if varsity esports players are barred from earning money, will the best prospects choose to make money, leaving schools with less-qualified players who view gaming as a hobby rather than a potential occupation?

These are a lot of questions, and many won’t be answered any time soon, but it seems like there are three choices for NCAA involvement in esports.

Choice one: leave college esports alone and let the players earn money, missing out on profits generated as the industry grows.

Choice two: get involved (either through something like running official college championships or selling team gear), and let the players earn money off their own image, setting precedent for other varsity athletes to do the same in the future.

Choice three: get involved and don’t let the players earn money, making it an even more diluted version of college baseball or soccer, where the best talent usually goes straight from high school to the pros.

No matter which direction the NCAA decides to head in, the growth of collegiate esports has big implications for the future of not just esports, but college athletics in general.