Would E-Sports Gamers Want to be NCAA Student-Athletes?

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/maxime_fort
Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/maxime_fort

*Amelia Curotto

October 3, 2016 

Pac-12 E-Sports Conference Announcement Reinforces Growth of Collegiate E-Sports

On May 24, 2016, the Pac-12 announced that it would be adding an e-sports competition to their conference during the 2016–2017 year, to be broadcast on the Pac-12 Network.[1]  According to the official summary of the conference’s year-end board meetings, the decision was made “following an internal review of the growing interest amongst Pac-12 students in competitive video gaming.”[2]  The exact structure of the competition, and the game in which students will compete, has not yet been announced.[3]

The announcement from the Pac-12 reflects the recent trend of televising e-sports competitions. This year, Turner Broadcasting System and WME/IMG created “ELeague,” an e-sports competition broadcast on TBS over ten weeks.[4]  The first competition, which began airing in May, featured teams from all over the world playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive for a piece of the $1.2 million prize pool.[5]  In the realm of collegiate e-sports, ESPNU and ESPN2 broadcast the “Heroes of the Dorm” tournament organized by the game developer Blizzard Entertainment in April.[6]  Sixty-four North American collegiate teams competed in Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm game, and the tournament’s winning team from Arizona State University won a $25,000 cash prize to apply towards tuition or student loans.[7]

Furthermore, colleges and universities have been gradually sponsoring e-sports over the past few years.[8]  Robert Morris University became the first university to offer scholarships to gamers, specifically to League of Legends players.[9]  A handful of other colleges followed, including Columbia College, which provides scholarships for students to play League of Legends on behalf of the school in various competitions, including developer Riot Games’ North American Collegiate Championship.[10]  Most recently, UC Irvine announced in March 2016 that the university will open a 3,500-square-foot gaming facility on campus and provide scholarships to ten students, enough to create two League of Legends teams to compete during the 2016–17 academic year.[11]

E-Sports is “Clearly Not an NCAA Sport:” Gaming Culture and Amateurism Do Not Compute

The increasing university involvement in e-sports has left many to question how e-sports and student gamers will be regulated.[12]  The Pac-12’s announcement indicates that its e-sports competitions will be subject to not only the conference’s rules but also the NCAA bylaws.[13]  However, the Pac-12 has not yet confirmed whether e-sports will be subject to all NCAA bylaws. In an interview with VICE Sports, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said that e-sports was “clearly not an NCAA sport, so it’s not going to be governed by NCAA rules.”[14]

Scott’s assessment requires serious consideration, because the nature of the gaming culture calls into question whether e-sports is compatible with the NCAA bylaws regarding amateurism.[15]  People start competitive gaming as early as the age of fourteen, and many retire from gaming by their mid-twenties.[16]  Not only do gamers participate in competitions for money, as explained above, but it is incredibly common for gamers to earn money by streaming online footage of themselves playing games.[17]  For example, one of the most widely used platforms for gamers to upload and stream videos is Twitch, which is owned by Amazon. Twitch users can apply directly through Twitch to become a partner, and partners receive a percentage of ad revenue generated from viewers watching content on their channel.[18]  The amount of money earned through Twitch depends on various factors including number of views, number of advertisements viewed, length of partnership, and potential sponsorship deals with gaming companies or Amazon; for example, one professional gamer with an average of 18,000 – 40,000 live viewers per Twitch stream reportedly earned up to $8,000 per month in 2015.[19]

The way NCAA bylaws read, a large percentage of gamers could be precluded from becoming amateur collegiate e-sports athletes unless they cease all monetization of their online activities. NCAA bylaws for Division I, Division II, and Division III sports all provide that after becoming a student-athlete, anyone who “uses his or her athletics’ skill for pay in any form in that sport” will lose amateur status.[20]  Therefore, gamers would have to give up any money they earn from online streaming, whether thousands of dollars in sponsorship deals or just a few cents in ad revenue from a few hundred views of a YouTube video. Only Division III bylaws specifically state that receiving pay in any form for athletic ability before college enrollment destroys amateurism eligibility; therefore, structuring e-sports amateurism according to Division I or Division II standards may not exclude every gamer from becoming a student-athlete.[21]

Room to Grow Within NCAA Bylaws?

The NCAA bylaws do not appear to automatically exempt all gamers who participate only in professional competitions prior to enrolling as a full-time college student. Division I and Division III bylaws allow a potential student-athlete to participate in a professional league prior to enrolling in college, provided that they do “not receive more than actual and necessary expenses to participate on the team.”[22]  Furthermore, Division III bylaws specifically state that winning prize money in a professional competition prior to college enrollment would not jeopardize a potential student-athlete’s amateur status.[23]

The question remains whether young gamers, who have adapted to a culture that permits them to make money in various ways, would have to give all of that up to play as a university student-athlete. No current university regulation precludes college students from participating in professional competitions and earning money, which could make a student-athlete option less attractive to a gamer who might not want to abide by university e-sports regulation.[24]  Furthermore, if the Pac-12 organizes their e-sports competition independently of NCAA bylaws, the conference may risk undermining the rules of amateurism that universities defend.[25]

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*Editor-in-Chief, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2017, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law

[1] See Pac-12 Announces Series of Decisions Out of End of Year Board Meetings, PAC-12 Conference (May 24, 2016), http://pac-12.com/article/2016/05/24/pac-12-announces-series-decisions-out-end-year-board-meetings (announcing plans for e-sports competition in conference and on television).

[2] Id. 

[3] See id. (explaining structure of e-sports competition is to be determined).

[4] See Charles Poladian, ‘ELeague’ eSports on TBS Debuts May 24 With Three-Hour ‘Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’ Broadcast, International Business Times (Jan. 28, 2016, 4:01 PM), http://www.ibtimes.com/eleague-esports-tbs-debuts-may-24-three-hour-counter-strike-global-offensive-2284861 (describing broadcast schedule and competition structure of TBS’s “ELeague”).

[5] See Charles Poladian, ELeague Announces First Six Teams Competing for a $1.2M Prize Pool in Inaugural Season, International Business Times (Mar. 10, 2016, 1:58 PM), http://www.ibtimes.com/eleague-announces-first-six-teams-competing-12m-prize-pool-inaugural-season-2334152 (profiling teams from North America, Australia, Denmark, and Sweden).

[6] See Andrew Lynch, A Guide to Heroes of the Dorm, the eSports Event That’s About to Take Over Your Timeline, Fox Sports (Apr. 9, 2016, 4:00 PM), http://www.foxsports.com/buzzer/story/heroes-of-the-storm-esports-heroes-of-the-dorm-explainer-heroic-four-tournament-guide-040916 (explaining Heroes of the Storm gameplay and what to expect in tournament). Like any major sporting event, the Heroes of the Dorm tournament faced cheating scandals and organized a bracket challenge for fans. See Brett Molina, Harvard Team Caught Cheating in ‘Heroes of the Dorm’ Event, USA Today (Mar. 28, 2016, 9:58 AM), http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/gaming/2016/03/27/harvard-team-caught-cheating-heroes-dorm-event/82320786/ (detailing how teams from Harvard University and University of Michigan were disqualified for providing their account information to better players not on their teams); Bracket Challenge, Heroes of the Dorm, https://www.heroesofthedorm.com/brackets/challenge (last visited Aug. 2, 2016) (offering a $10,000 prize for finishing first in official bracket challenge).

[7] See Lynch, supra note 6 (explaining structure and tournament rules); Tim Rizzo, Arizona State Wins Heroes of the Dorm, ESPN (Apr. 11, 2016), http://espn.go.com/esports/story/_/id/15180362/arizona-state-wins-heroes-dorm (summarizing final rounds of competition).

[8] See Kien Lam, Pac-12 to Enter Esports This Upcoming Year, ESPN (May 25, 2016), http://espn.go.com/esports/story/_/id/15724001/pac-12-enter-esports-upcoming-year (summarizing growing collegiate presence in e-sports, from competitions to scholarships).

[9] See Saira Mueller, At Least 5 Colleges Now Have League of Legends, Esports Scholarship Programs, Daily Dot (last updated Dec. 11, 2015, 1:52 PM), http://www.dailydot.com/esports/league-of-legends-college-scholarships/ (explaining first e-sports scholarship offered at Robert Morris University, which colleges such as University of Pikeville and Maryville University followed).

[10] See id. (comparing types of e-sports scholarship programs offered in United States).

[11] See Nick Schwartz, UC Irvine Becomes Latest School to Offer eSports Scholarships, Fox Sports (Mar. 30, 2016, 6:45 PM), http://www.foxsports.com/buzzer/story/university-california-irvine-esports-scholarship-league-of-legends-033016 (announcing UC Irvine e-sports scholarship program).

[12] See Nick Wingfield, E-Sports at College, with Stars and Scholarships, NY Times (Dec. 8, 2014), http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/09/technology/esports-colleges-breeding-grounds-professional-gaming.html?_r=0 (arguing university e-sports regulation has Title IX and amateurism implications, along with time restraints and GPA requirements for gamers); Ferguson Mitchell, Pac-12 Esports Problems: Pre-Existing Collegiate Competitions, Student-Athlete Regulation, and Title IX Compliance, The Esports Observer (May 26, 2016), http://esportsobserver.com/pac-12-esports-problems-pre-existing-collegiate-competitions-student-athlete-regulation-title-ix-compliance/ (outlining challenges to regulating e-sports in light of NCAA bylaws); Kevin Trahan, What Does the Pac-12’s Embrace of Esports Mean for Amateurism?, Vice Sports (May 31, 2016), https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/what-does-the-pac-12s-embrace-of-esports-mean-for-amateurism (arguing e-sports regulation “is a brand new dilemma” for Pac-12 conference).

[13] See Pac-12 Conference, Pac-12 2016–17 Handbook, Rule 1-2(a) (2016), available athttp://compliance.pac-12.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/2016-17-P12-Handbook.v2.pdf (stating Pac-12 is NCAA conference member and abides by NCAA bylaws and guidelines).

[14] Trahan, supra note 12 (quoting Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott).

[15] See, e.g.id. (analyzing legal implications of Pac-12 decision to sanction e-sports); Mitchell, supra note 12 (arguing existing collegiate competitions complicate NCAA compliance in e-sports).

[16] See Luke Winkle, Retired at 20: A Pro Gamer’s Life After eSports, Kotaku (Dec. 8, 2015, 1:51 PM), http://kotaku.com/retired-at-20-a-pro-gamer-s-life-after-esports-1746907605 (profiling teenage professional gamers who gave up gaming in their twenties); Tom DiChristopher, Pro Gamers Story: Get Big, Burn Out, Retire Young, CNBC (Feb. 3, 2014), http://www.cnbc.com/2014/02/01/pro-gamers-story-get-big-burn-out-retire-young.html (interviewing former professional gamers Dave Walsh and George Georgallidis).

[17] See Cameron Keng, Online Streaming and Professional Gaming is a $300,000 Career Choice, Forbes (Apr. 21, 2014, 9:39 AM), http://www.forbes.com/sites/cameronkeng/2014/04/21/online-streaming-professional-gaming-is-a-300000-career-choice/2/#27cbe9d1770d (explaining advertising revenue from streaming platforms such as Twitch, Livestream, YouTube, and sponsorships for professional gamers).

[18] See Twitch Partner Program, Twitch, https://www.twitch.tv/p/partners (last visited Aug. 2, 2016) (explaining benefits of Twitch partnership). A member must have at least 500 subscribers and upload videos three times per week to be eligible for a Twitch partnership. See Partner Application, Twitch, https://www.twitch.tv/partner/signup (last visited Aug. 2, 2016).

[19] See Jesse Aaron, How Much Can You Make Streaming as a Professional Video Gamer?, Huffington Post (Mar. 27, 2015, 9:05 AM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jesse-aaron/how-much-can-you-make-str_b_6926362.html (detailing Twitch revenue algorithm and profiling 23-year-old gamer Michael Santana).

[20] Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n, 2016–17 NCAA Division I Manual, art. 12.1.2(a) (2016) [hereinafter 2016–17 NCAA Division I Manual], available athttp://www.ncaapublications.com/productdownloads/D117.pdf; Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n, 2016–17 NCAA Division II Manual, art. 2.1.4(a) (2016) [hereinafter 2016–17 NCAA Division II Manual], available at http://www.ncaapublications.com/productdownloads/

D217.pdf; Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n, 2016–17 NCAA Division III Manual, art. 12.1.5.2(a) (2016) [hereinafter 2016–17 NCAA Division III Manual], available athttp://www.ncaapublications.com/productdownloads/D317.pdf.   The Division I and Division III bylaws define “prohibited forms of pay” as “[a]ny direct or indirect salary, gratuity, or comparable compensation.” 2016–17 NCAA Division I Manual at art. 12.1.2.1.1; 2016–17 NCAA Division III Manual at art. 12.1.7.1.

[21] See 2016–17 NCAA Division III Manual, supra note 20, at art. 12.1.3.2(a) (“Before initial, full-time collegiate enrollment, an individual . . . shall not be eligible for participation in a particular sport if the individual . . . [u]ses his or her athletics skill (directly or indirectly) for pay in any form in that sport, unless it meets one of the permissible amateurism activities identified under Bylaw 12.1.3.1.”).

[22] 2016–17 NCAA Division I Manual, supra note 20, at arts. 12.2.3.2.1, 12.2.5.1; 2016–17 NCAA Division III Manual, supra note 20, at art. 12.1.3.1. The 2016–17 Division II bylaws do not contain a provision with similar language.

[23] See 2016–17 NCAA Division III Manual, supra note 20, at art.12.1.3.1(a) (“[A]n individual may . . . accept prize money based on the individual’s or his or her team’s place finish. . . . If payment is based on a team’s performance then the combination of such payments and expenses shall not exceed his or her actual and necessary expenses[.]”)

[24] See Trahan, supra note 12 (noting e-sports gamers have “more leverage” because college e-sports is not as reputable as, for example, college football).

[25] See id. (arguing that allowing leeway in NCAA e-sports amateurism would undermine importance of current NCAA lawsuits regarding amateurism).