Intercollegiate Esports Must Follow College Football in Order to Shape their Future

Intercollegiate Esports Must Follow College Football in Order to Shape their Future

By Rachel Werner

Esports is at a crossroads in its development. Across the country, many universities are offering scholarships to gamers, while others are sponsoring esports as a club sport. Both initiatives have begun to provide gaming official recognition and legitimacy within intercollegiate sports. Outside of the collegiate sphere, esports is growing as well, with players and viewers reaching well into the millions. This growth is objectively positive; after all, through new academic scholarships, collegiate esports is granting even more opportunities for young people to achieve a low-cost college education. However, it could have its negative aspects as well. As it continues to grow in both popularity and revenue, esports could begin to fall under the regulatory powers of the NCAA. After all, there is a powerful precedent for such an occurrence, one set by America’s favorite game: gridiron football. 

In understanding the connection between American collegiate football and gaming, it is vital to know the history of college football. College football began as a players game, meaning that it was organized, coached, and run solely by the players. However, as the game grew in popularity, so did various attempts to improve gameplay through the hiring of professionals, whether they be coaches or players. Football was frankly quite unregulated in the early part of the 20th century, with “tramp athletes” playing each semester for a different and presumably higher-paying school. Unregulated sports betting led to problematic connections between college football and organized crime, a connection unsurprising, considering the money involved. Eventually, football’s unregulated, student-led status began to grow dangerous. Each school had its own rules about games, player eligibility, coaches, and training, leading to competitive imbalance and high rates of injury. Eventually, a concerned committee headed by President Teddy Roosevelt established the NCAA’s predecessor as a means of controlling the dangers of a game, that sometimes led to the deaths of its participants. Unfortunately, the NCAA’s exertion of power over college football has arguably done more harm than good, with problems ranging from player mistreatment to the cover-up of athlete misdemeanors. It leaves many wondering, if perhaps this bureaucratic involvement could have been avoided by student-led organization and a grassroots-level striving for fairness.

Modern esports is in a similar position to college football in the 1890s and early 1900s. It is a growing sport, often player led, with programs cropping up throughout schools in the United States and elsewhere. While it does not have the same elements of physical danger presented by gridiron football, it does have the potential to be unfair, as a result of a total lack of equalization throughout the sport. Each separate piece of gaming equipment can play a role in the performance of a competitive gamer. Broadband internet also plays a role in player performance, as gaming requires specific internet speeds that may be more accessible to some gamers. As esports becomes more widespread in colleges, there will surely be discrepancies among schools. A smaller, poorer junior college might not have the same quality of internet as a richer state college, creating disparity that almost begs for revenue sharing. Lack of standardized equipment could lead to accusations of unfair advantage and debates about outcomes of competitions. Most importantly, these debates could cause problems with sports gambling, which often goes hand-in-hand with esports initiatives. As a result of these many possible problems, the NCAA would be likely to step in and involve themselves, creating unnecessary regulations and taking large portions of revenue for themselves, while also removing power from individual players. 

Fortunately, esports can examine what could have worked with college football in order to determine their own course of action. Injuries were the greatest impetus to regulation in college football, while sports gambling and high winning purses will likely inspire esports regulation, if a lack of standardization continues unchecked. However, esports can avoid NCAA interference by taking a few necessary steps. First, they must seek to establish their own rules for the standardization of equipment. They must also determine what equipment is necessary, and create separate divisions for schools with differing levels of technology.

As esports continue to gain momentum throughout the world, it is important for gamers, schools, and organizations to understand the necessary steps which must be taken to further the sport. Many have observed that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Esports must carefully examine the history of college football in order to avoid repeating its mistakes.