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Ohio State is latest power conference school to embrace esports while NCAA sits idle

Lucas Lumbra plays for Ohio State’s Overwatch team. (N/A/Courtesy Ohio State University)

One of the country’s foremost athletic powerhouses has announced a major push into esports, with the creation of a dedicated arena, integrated curriculum involving five colleges and research initiatives aimed to bolster gaming performance. The move by Ohio State University underscores the growing power and influence of competitive video gaming in higher education, both in terms of competition and career prospects.

“Companies have noted to various people on campus that we’re not putting out the students with all the skills that they need to fill the job openings they have in the esport area,” said Deborah M. Grzybowski, co-director of game studies and esports curriculum at Ohio State and also an associate professor in engineering at the school.

Grzybowski said the “driver” behind getting the esports initiatives approved was the school’s powerful athletic department. Yet, the school’s esports teams are not housed with the athletic department.

“We are not going to be under athletics partly because of NCAA,” Grzybowski said.

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Under NCAA regulations, student-athletes are generally not allowed to accept money derived from activities based on their athletic ability. This conflicts with the reality of esports stars, who can gain prominence in their teens and occupy a space between competitors and entertainers. Top players often have multiple revenue streams, including fan donations,shared ad sales on their streaming channels, sponsorships and tournament prize money.

Ohio State is not alone in keeping its esports team outside the athletic department. The University of Utah, which is the only Power 5 conference school to field varsity esports teams, houses its program in an academic department. Miami University (in Ohio) and the University of California, Irvine, which are both in the NCAA’s Division I for traditional sports, dodge the NCAA as well.

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The NCAA, a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization that earned over $1 billion in 2017, is facing calls from players, fans, coaches and civil rights activists to amend its bylaws to allow student-athletes, particularly in football and basketball, to be monetarily compensated. Until such changes are made, the NCAA would have a hard time bringing esports under its umbrella without destabilizing the structure around its traditional sports.

Given that the NCAA has been struggling to enforce its regulations around traditional sports for decades, it is unclear how effectively, or willingly, it would be able to address thechallenges posed by esports culture. In response to a request for interview, the NCAA shared a year-old news release detailing a plan to explore esports. The findings of that exploratory study have not been released.

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Ohio State and other schools are embracing esports at a time when competitive gaming is experiencing rapid economic growth. The esports industry is expected to exceed $1 billion in value by next year, according to market research firm Newzoo, which estimates the total video game industry to be $138 billion.

Ohio State’s commitment to esports represents a significant boon to those fighting for acceptance.

“I love that Ohio State is diving in,” said A.J. Dimick, Esports Director at the University of Utah. “It helps moves the needle in the right direction.”

Other developments include a two-year extension of the Big Ten Network’s League of Legends competition, which is a partnership between the network and League of Legends publisher Riot Games. Riot is funding scholarships for all Big Ten schools as part of the deal. The University of Utah (part of the Pac-12 conference for its traditional sports) and several other universities with competitive programs offer scholarships. Ohio State has plans to offer scholarships in the future.

Without an overarching governing body like the NCAA, there are multiple collegiate esports conferences, leagues and games, including the National Association of Collegiate Esports and the Electronic Gaming Federation. The latter partnered with Ohio State this month. Some of the most common games include League of Legends, Overwatch, Fortnite, Rocket League and Hearthstone.

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The number of colleges and universities hosting varsity esports programs is approaching 100. Most are smaller schools that compete in the NCAA’s Division II or Division III for traditional sports, or in other college athletic associations, such as the NAIA.

For these schools, esports, both academically and competitively, represent a chance to drive enrollment numbers and build community, online and on-campus.

“The college views this as an enrollment and retention strategy,” said Molly Mott, associate provost and dean of academic support services at SUNY Canton, which plans to fund its esports teams on par with its other sports teams.

SUNY Canton has also added two esports majors and built a dedicated arena.

“It has been incredibly successful,” said SUNY Athletic Director Randy Sieminski, noting that the SUNY Canton Kangaroos have competed against major programs, such as Ohio State, and Siena, an NCAA Division I school.

For schools at all levels, esports has created a new avenue for students to feel like a part of the program.

“Students who have never been in the football stadium, can now identify with the university and brand,” Utah’s Dimick said.

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