A.J. Dimick sees big things in the future for collegiate esports. “I think college esports has a limitless ceiling, I really do,” Dimick told me over the phone earlier this year. To that end, Dimick, esports director at the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering department, has facilitated the creation of the first varsity esports program at a Power 5 school. Utah already has plans to support teams in League of Legends, Overwatch, and Hearthstone, with other games planned to join the lineup as the program grows.
For now, the esports program will not be a part of Utah athletics, but rather under the Entertainment Arts & Engineering program Dimick works under. “What varsity means to us, and this is very important to me,” Dimick said, “is that this is the university’s team. This is not a team that is tolerated by the university, or is done inside a program or a department, or anything of that nature. This is the official, recognized at the highest levels of the university, as our team. These kids are representatives of the University of Utah. We hope to elevate it to levels of any other mainstream sport on this campus one day.”
For now, though, esports and physical sports will be separated at Utah. “We’ve talked to athletics for a long time and I do believe this belongs in athletics eventually,” Dimick told me. But there are some major roadblocks. The esports program is being built up from what was initially a combination of multiple grassroots gaming organizations at the school. Infrastructure is lacking, and the program is still working on securing venues both for events and for training. These are problems for every school considering the creation of an esports team, Dimick told me.
“Those conversations here and everywhere are always logistical problems,” he said. “Where is it housed on your campus? Is it part of athletics? Is it part of the college of engineering? Whose budget pays for it? Who’s in charge?”
For a while, it was looking like Utah’s effort would have some major backing in the form of a Pac-12 conference esports league of some sort. Last May, the conference announced it would be supporting esports competition through the Pac-12 Network. “Esports is a natural fit for many of our universities located in the technology and media hubs of the country,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told the media.
But when I asked Pac-12 communications officials about their esports efforts, I was told simply that “The Pac-12 and Pac-12 Networks are not pursuing esports at this time.” When I asked why, I was told by Erik Hardenbergh of Pac-12 communications, “We’ve decided not to have a league-wide program at this time.”
Dimick told me he received similarly vague reasonings from conference officials when the program was tabled. “I worked with them for a long time trying to make that happen,” Dimick said. “For logistical reasons it has kinda gone to the backburner for a little while.”
One of those logistical problems for esports programs and the athletics departments that may one day house them is, of course, the amateurism issue. Dimick said that while Utah’s varsity esports team will not be professionalized—money won in official competitions would be put back into the scholarship fund—the esports team has no plans to institute the kind of rigid rules that define NCAA sports.
“This is a student team, so we will impose amateurism rules,” Dimick said. But, he added, “We don’t want to over-regulate it ... Anything they do when they are not representing the University of Utah, that’s their concern. We don’t want to control more of that than we have to. We can’t sponsor a professional team, but we’re not going to try to dictate what they do when they’re not on the student team.”
I asked if a hypothetical Street Fighter player for the University of Utah who won a major tournament like EVO would be allowed to keep that money—last year’s champion, Infiltration, won $50,642—and remain on the team. “That’s exactly right,” Dimick said. “That’s entirely his or her concern. We hope that participating in college esports can enhance those kinds of opportunities for a student. But if you are so good that it is costing you money to participate on the college team, then, like every other sport, the athlete has a choice to make.”
The problem here for the Pac-12 and other major conferences is that this is not really “like every other sport” in America. Sure, players have the option to pursue other domestic international opportunities—see NBA player Brandon Jennings, who spent a year in Europe before entering the NBA draft, or Latavious Williams, a high school basketball prospect who chose to go directly into the NBA’s developmental league. Baseball and hockey players have a choice to go professional right out of high school.
Despite those rare exceptions, the rules governing NCAA and professional eligibility effectively restrict college-aged men’s basketball and football players from the professional market entirely. On the other hand, esports are the “wild west,” as Dimick put it. There is no singular pro league with monopoly control on talent like there is in football and basketball. And as such, college programs cannot hope to have the kind of leverage over esports players that would allow them to expect players to relinquish their paychecks. The NCAA amateurism model is simply unrealistic in the esports marketplace without that kind of leverage.
There are other issues that must be addressed in the creation of a robust, centralized collegiate esports organization, whether at a national level or a conference level. Primary among them is the intellectual-property issue. Nobody owns football or basketball, but League of Legends is owned by Riot Games, and so any organization broadcasting or hosting a League of Legends competition must go through Riot. The idea of creating a pan-esports organization may, though, be anathema to Riot, which has tried in the past to prevent esports organizations with League of Legends teams from investing in competing esports.
The amateurism problem, though, is massive for the NCAA and any organization tied to it. Collegiate esports competitions like Blizzard’s “Heroes of the Dorm” (for its MOBA, Heroes of the Storm) and Riot’s Campus Series (for League) offer thousands of dollars payouts for competitors*. How could the Pac-12 network—or any other major NCAA-affiliated organization —reconcile the hypocrisy of paying collegiate esports players while claiming paying football and basketball players would ruin the product? As Andrew Leonard wrote for The Ringer this past December, “The e-sports example explodes the fiction of the amateur student-athlete and demonstrates a model in which the highly recruited athlete who is so valuable to the university can get paid for their performance.”
There is good reason to believe the amateur problem is part of what pushed the Pac-12 away from esports. As part of an ongoing class action lawsuit on behalf of collegiate athletes, attorneys requested production of all Pac-12 documents discussing amateurism in esports. From a February court filing:
Specifically, a central defense of Defendants has been that “amateurism” is essential for intercollegiate sports, and that consumers will reject these sports if their participants receive even a penny of compensation or benefits above the students’ cost of attendance. However, at the same time, the Pac-12 was publicly reported to be organizing a new business of “eSports” (video game) competitions between its schools, even though eSports competitors have received and would receive substantial prize monies. The hypocrisy of these inconsistent positions is strong evidence that the Defendants’ “amateurism” defense is a sham.
The Pac-12’s defense largely centered around their insistence that their esports discussions were merely in a preliminary phase. No money had been paid out, and no competitions for money were planned for the future. It worked out, as Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins ruled against the plaintiffs’ request for production in late February.
For now, Dimick and the University of Utah are forging their own path. He and his organization were naturally disappointed by the Pac-12’s decision to put esports on the back burner. “We had made so much progress here and had so much administrative support to push it that we wanted to move forward.” He hopes that Utah can create an institution that can serve as a model for how esports can be done at the college level.
“We came around to the notion that we would be better off flipping the order of operations, to set up an infrastructure on our own campus and create a template for it,” Dimick said. “From that position of declaring it a varsity event on this campus, we would be in a far better position to have conversations about more centralized governance of esports and find those partners and maybe help other Power 5 schools who see themselves doing this. Hopefully now that we’ve done what we’ve done, we can push it up the hill.”
It’s an important first step toward realizing Dimick’s vision of a collegiate esports that is bigger than any individual university or any individual game. It will take a lot of building, and doing so without the help of an organization with the power of the Pacific-12 Conference is going to be difficult. But if forging their own path means avoiding the NCAA and its arcane amateurism rules, rules that have no place in the esports world, collegiate esports at the University of Utah and across the country may be better off in the long run.
Jack Moore is a freelance sportswriter living and working in Minneapolis. Catch him playing competitive Sm4sh under the tag Jackie Peanuts.