Blue lights shone down on the Boise State University team as it prepared for its matchup with the Air Force Academy.
The teams sat side-by-side in gaming chairs on an elevated stage, the chairs placed on top of a piece of blue turf from the Boise State football field. The players were either warming up in-game or scrolling through different chats in Discord, killing time before they join the official lobby.
The Air Force team sat in its standard jerseys next to the Boise State side: Wearing fly suits with patches on every member’s shoulders and chest. The Boise State team wore standard issue jerseys as well, with names on the back and the stylized head of a Bronco across the front.
The production value of this matchup is standard from a professional esports studio: coordinated colored lights, a broadcast desk with commentators highlighted by lower-third graphics and post-match interviews.
This game was being played and produced at Boise State in their esports arena in the College of Innovation and Design’s Venture College. The level of technical production and broadcast proficiency could be equated to that of IU’s own student media, as well as the Big Ten Network.
Bean bags and extra chairs were set up in front of the stage. Beyond that was a broadcast booth. A group of more computers was off to the side with non-competitors grinding their game of choice. The Boise State announcers introduced both teams and signaled the beginning of that night's match.
Both teams loaded into the game, Rocket League, a competitive video game centered around three-versus-three games of soccer but with cars that can use rocket boosts to fly through the air.
Like Boise State, IU has appeared in esports broadcasts before. Students have put on Super Smash Bros. tournaments streamed on Twitch.tv on campus for almost five years and participated in collegiate leagues. Some were put on with the help of the Big Ten network.
IU does not have an esports broadcast of its own with the production value and expertise of Boise State's. IU could easily possess the same quality broadcasts if the school put the resources to an esports department. Most universities build its esports programs off the back of existing programs, athletic or otherwise.
Chris Haskell, a member of the board of directors for NACE and the director and head coach of esports at Boise State University said IU could use its new and shiny broadcast and media programs to kickstart its way into the upper echelon of collegiate esports.
Esports has had an interesting trajectory into the collegiate space in North America. Most American sports, like basketball and football, first started as clubs which turned into teams. Those teams would eventually send students into professional leagues as they became established throughout history.
Esports has done the opposite.
Game developers and third-party organizers established tournament series and leagues years before the first varsity esports program was established in 2014 by Robert Morris University. In other countries, games like StarCraft and Counter Strike have been played professionally for over a decade.
With over 150 varsity programs recognized by the National Association of Collegiate Esports, one of the regulating bodies to this growing industry, there are fewer and fewer reasons for universities not to jump onto this initial wave of team creation.
Haskell said esports programs at colleges are inevitable.
“It’s going to reach a singularity moment where there are more collegiate esports teams, groups, clubs than there are college football programs,” Haskell said.
Most colleges have some sort of gaming club on campus that connect like-minded students wanting to form and compete against other teams.
Some of these clubs, like the one here at IU, already compete in developer-run collegiate leagues like Tespa, for Blizzard titles, or College League of Legends, run by its developer Riot. They just need some help from the university side.
“The only thing that is required to really begin an esports program is you need students, you need a game to play, and you need someone to play,” Haskell said.
NACE, the Electronic Gaming Federation and organizations like them, are trying to connect teams and players together while also creating rules and regulations for schools to follow.
While NACE is a partner of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and deals with universities that already have a varsity esports program, EGF helps Power-5 schools looking to start one. The organization, founded by Tyler Schrodt, gets schools up to speed and then enters them into EGF's leagues. EGF also helps build local talent, helping high schools near their partnered universities start esports programs of their own.
“We want to create a highly standardized, super high-level competition of a standardized league,” Schrodt said.
These organizations are necessary not only to create an authority for teams to look to, but also to fill the void that the NCAA doesn’t currently want to address.
The NCAA’s board of governors voted to postpone the issue of esports governance and holding championships at their annual convention in the spring of 2019.
The issue of Title IX affects how scholarships are allocated by schools, because esports is technically a coed sport. Compounded by how prize money from third-party tournaments could affect college eligibility has made the NCAA think twice about adopting it.
The associations’ president, Mark Emmert, has kept the organization from throwing its hat in the ring.
“We know a lot of the content is hugely misogynistic,” Emmert said during the 2019 convention. “We know that some of the content is really violent. We don’t particularly embrace games where the objective is to blow your opponent’s head off.”
The IU gaming club is already doing what it can to create an esports program on campus.
Adam Sweeny, a professor at IU and a faculty representative for the IU gaming club, said there was an attempt to make a program through intramural sports, but it ultimately fell through.
Now, the club is attempting to do things through broadcasts with the Big Ten network and the club's Twitch.tv channel.
“Every student gets an Amazon Prime account,” Sweeny said. “With that, they also get a free Twitch prime subscription which, hopefully, they use on the IU twitch channel.”
The club is allowed to use the university logo and even use the funds they get from the Twitch channel to help fund potential scholarships and jerseys for the various teams already organized on campus.
The Twitch channel is run entirely by students. The stream will sometimes show scrimmages between IU and other collegiate esports teams or just a solo session by a single player interacting with a few people in chat.
“We are trying to build the legitimacy level of esports,” Sweeny said.
While the IU gaming club is toiling away trying to prove to the university that esports is a legitimate venture, other schools in the Big Ten are jumping in head first.
Ohio State has recently opened an esports facility on campus and is looking to offer scholarships in the near future. The university announced over a year ago they would launch a comprehensive esports collaboration on its campus that involves research and a curriculum with a focus on game studies and esports
“We want to make sure that success comes from supporting casual gamers, students taking classes to enhance their career opportunities and the research possibilities,” Ohio State esports director Brandon Smith said.
The timeline for early access to esports leagues and competitions is shortening. Smith said he thinks Ohio State is part of the first wave, and the universities that join in the next one-to-two years will be part of the second wave.
“The longer big schools wait, the longer it will take them to have the success that, in IU’s case, may be its birthright,” Haskell said.
Sweeney said as of now, IU is waiting for a division of the university that wants to come forward to sponsor and advocate for an esports program.
“The research that we could do with partnerships within the IU walls are staggering,” Haskell said. “So many questions about collegiate esports that can be answered there because of the academic lift of an institution like that.”
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