Who Runs College Esports?

With a new year and a new semester arriving, the world of college esports will expand even more. COVID-19 is still a daily threat to health and normalcy, college campuses are still closed, and meat sports are trying their best to deliver a safe state of play (they can’t). But with the virus now entering a full year on American shores, one thing did remain semi-constant. Esports, over the past 10 months, saw a new magnifying glass hovering over it. And some of that scalding light refracting onto the college scene. New people gained interest, lapsed fans came back, and games that were once $30 became free. A lot changed in 2020. However, there are still some fundamental misunderstandings about who plays when and for what. So here’s a quick breakdown of “who runs college esports?”

Developer Sanctioned Seasons/Tournaments

Esports differs from traditional sports in more than one way. But one of the biggest is the fact that companies OWN every esport. While the NBA and the NHL are arbiters of a specific set of rules for basketball and hockey, but they do not own the sport itself. Therefore, the publisher of each and every esport has the right to give or rescind permission to use the game for competitive play. That’s why developer run tournaments are so important.

When a dev creates a new competitive scene, it’s done with the full suite and support of the game company that made it. Dev tournaments usually have larger prize pools, high-end stream production, and stat tracking. Riot Games’ College League of Legends or Psyonix/Epic Game’s Collegiate Rocket League are prime examples of this. They have the resources to make winning these events worthwhile and often college coaches will prioritize participation in these events. Most importantly, because there’s no fear of the game’s owners pulling the plug on a third party organizer and leaving them in competitive limbo.

Collegiate Rocket League is an example of a developer-run season.
Credit: Psyonix/Epic Games

Legacy College Esports Orgs

College Esports has a glut of third party organizations aiming at streamlining the competitive process for college esports. Orgs like The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) and the Unified Collegiate Esports Association (UCEA) were founded with the intention of making sense of it all. However, it’s been hard for some of them to pry eyeballs away from the larger, developer-run events. But when it comes to the scholastic side of the game, they have a distinct advantage. As much as they host events, they also assist in creating new esports programs, scholarships, and more. They are vital to the “student-athlete” aspect of college esports infrastructure. As much as they try to run from it, if there was an NCAA for college esports, it would fall into this category.

Third Party Organizers

The bulk of what many people watch, when it comes from college esports, is produced by someone other than the game developer. Some of these names you’ve almost certainly heard of in the college esports space before. PlayVS, CSL Esports, and even Dreamhack all have or had robust college esports events. These companies are typified by their large infrastructures, polished back end support for stats/scores, and frequently streamed competitions. Prizing is still better than many of the smaller competitions and the level of play is often higher than expected.

Invitationals

Invitationals are great. Schools can hold them, pro-teams can host them, random tech companies can have them. Literally almost anyone. If you have the blessing of the game developer you can host an invitational. And if you’re a big school or esports org, that small tournament comes with prestige. In 2020, we saw UCLA and Harrisburg hold massive, multi-esport events. We also saw UMG host the Overwatch Colligate Clash for Overwatch and Psyonix host the Maui Invitational. All of them were great to watch.

These one-off events are great as they give fans and analysts a chance to see teams they may not always see. But it also puts some of the best squads in a given esport in the same bracket. Almost nothing is better for seeing which schools are truly the top. Only the season-long developer events capture that energy better. When asking “Who Runs College Esports?” from a team point of view, invitationals play a big part in that.

Northwood and Maryville take championship titles at HUE Invitational -  Inven Global
HUE is an invitational run by Harrisburg University
Credit: Hueinvitational

Interconference Play

Because of the lack of a true NCAA regional system, many esports programs resolved to create brand new conferences. And because of the nascent nature of college esports, these conferences are also new. Many of them found in the last two years. But in the same vein as the ACC, Big Ten, and SEC, these collections of schools are looking to create a regional ecosystem where the high-level play can flourish. Unfortunately, there isn’t much competitive infrastructure yet. We haven’t seen many Esports Collegiate Conference champions or Midwest Esports Conference Tournaments. That doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, but the prestige of the individual conferences just isn’t there yet.

Local Events

Let’s not forget the litany of college kids that take time out of their weekends and help to organize grassroots events. Without this work, college esports is just a wild concept to a university provost. It is through the crazed work in LANs, setting up streams, and producing great communities that made it so esports could even be a reality. At all levels.

Although “Who runs college esports?” might be a more complex question to answer, hopefully, 2021 resets and we can get back to normal. In this “normal” world, events can happen in person and big marquee events can tentpole the school year.

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