Why esports companies are bringing order to the collegiate space in 2023

In 2023, collegiate esports has become a veritable Wild West, as numerous league operators and other stakeholders jockey for a share of the market. Lately, though, some companies have taken steps to bring order to the space, believing a balanced collegiate esports ecosystem will help make the esports industry more sustainable across the board.

Given the number of competing leagues and regulatory bodies in the space, it would be hard to blame a university administrator for steering clear of esports over the past few years. One potential sticking point is the lack of a basic infrastructure along the lines of traditional college athletics. The NCAA declined to oversee collegiate gaming competitions in 2019, leaving the door open for a multitude of smaller companies such as NACE Starleague and Learfield to enter the space.

The fragmentation of the collegiate esports space became apparent during a string of controversies last year.

In July 2022, the scholastic esports company PlayVS came under fire following accusations of executive dysfunction and misrepresentations of its purportedly exclusive relationships with esports game publishers. (PlayVS did not respond to requests for comment for this report.)

And in October, collegiate players spoke out about the mismanagement of Red Bull’s Campus Clutch “Valorant” events, criticizing the tournament’s confusing rulings and insufficient communication with players.

Flash point controversies notwithstanding, the Wild West nature of collegiate esports can simply be a cause for significant headaches for college administrators as they seek out the leagues and tournaments that best fit their program. 

“It takes the bulk of my time at the beginning of the year to keep track of where we’re signing up, and who and what we’re doing with our league partnerships,” said Theresa Gaffney, the head varsity esports coach at Pennsylvania’s Messiah University. “This year, for instance, I just paid the dues for NACE [National Association of Collegiate Esports] and NECC [National Esports Collegiate Conference]. We’re in two organizations, because both provide tournaments within a network that feels good for Messiah University.”

As for the major esports game developers, their participation in collegiate esports has come in fits and starts. Valve has largely stayed hands-off, in line with its broader approach to competitive gaming; Activision Blizzard acquired the collegiate esports company Tespa in 2013, but spun down the brand in 2021. 

Riot Games has arguably made the largest investment of the major esports developers in collegiate, founding the Riot Scholastic Association of America, a governing body overseeing collegiate play for its titles, in 2019. The company is willing to play the long game in its investment in collegiate esports because it believes the continuing growth of its core esports product requires a framework for students to get involved in competitive gaming, according to Riot senior director of esports for the Americas, Raul Fernandez.

“We believe that establishing the foundation of a competitive ecosystem is paramount to the overall success of the sport,” Fernandez said. “Our commitment remains to meeting our players where they’re at. As the next generation enters the collegiate system, with an awareness and passion for esports, we are able to provide students with the ground rules to put on their own competitions and introduce others to the future of sport.”

Riot’s most recent move in the collegiate arena came last month, when the company announced a three-year partnership to host its North American collegiate tournaments for both “League of Legends” and “Valorant” through the esports company GGTech Entertainment. Instead of making any structural changes to Riot’s collegiate events, the goal of the partnership is to more effectively monetize collegiate esports events by allowing GGTech to sell Riot’s college tournaments as inventory for its own ads and brand partnerships.

“We’re not in here just to take money off of the publisher and then forget about it once it’s all paid,” said Josh Williams, GGTech global manager for university esports. “Commercializing our collegiate projects creates a sustainable product, and that model helps us in the long term — for the students, for us as a company, for Riot — so it becomes a win-win situation for everybody.”

The impetus for all this activity? Nobody will say it outright — but, as usual, it’s likely in preparation for the mounting esports winter. Riot recognizes that times are tough for other esports businesses, and a fragmented collegiate space doesn’t do the esports industry any favors.

In hopes of creating a tide that lifts all ships, Riot and other collegiate esports companies are beginning to recognize the need for a more seamless entry point for universities interested in participating in competitive gaming.

“That’s how pro sports got built: the professional leagues that we know of came out of collegiate,” said John Fazio, CEO of Nerd Street Gamers, which operates esports venues for American colleges such as New Jersey’s Rowan University. “The college infrastructure builds these things, and then we monetize the scale.”


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