159 million people watched at least one minute of the entire 2016 NCAA football season. The next year, more than 360 million watched the League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational alone.
The viewership of esports among 18- to 25-year-olds outpaces even the NBA Finals and World Series. Sponsorships included, the esports market stacked up to nearly $700 million in 2017 alone.
UCLA in particular is a budding and promising scene for esports. However, the university has no dedicated gaming arena like the one UC Irvine built in 2016, nor does it offer student gamers the scholarships many universities have introduced over the past few years. It doesn’t even do the little things, such as transport players to their tournaments or help teams secure rooms to practice.
Consequently, UCLA’s esports teams play as self-funded and self-driven squads, which puts them at a huge disadvantage. Without any support from the administration, esports teams garner success through their determination and virtuosity alone. To help teams get the resources they need for practice and travel, UCLA should recognize competitive esports in games with an established league as club sports and work in the long run to integrate collegiate esports into the NCAA.
The gaming scene at UCLA is vibrant despite the administration’s lack of support. Josh Sambasivam, a third-year computer science student and president of the “Super Smash Bros. for Wii U” club, said the size of the university and its location in the middle of the thriving LA competitive gaming scene has helped produce several competitive teams. These teams include Sambasivam’s club, which recently qualified for Collegiate Starleague Regionals, as well as UCLA Overwatch and UCLA League of Legends Premiere teams, which have done well in the intercollegiate competitions they’ve taken part in.
“Our scene is pretty good right now,” Sambasivam said. “We’re pretty optimistic about it moving forward.”
Even with their current success, many esports players acknowledge that the absence of UCLA’s aid is costing them a significant competitive edge.
“I think that esports players deserve the same recognitions that apply toward scholarship athletes, like scholarships, dedicated practice (and) paid travel,” said Sunny Yen, fifth-year sociology student and founder and president of Esports at UCLA, a student organization that promotes and publicizes esports competitions.
The university would merely be playing catch up by offering such assistance, as many schools already provide basic support to their esports teams. Sambasivam said UC Irvine’s stadium promotes engagement between esports teams and the campus community by serving as a space for gamers and fans to interact with each other. The fact that UCLA doesn’t even offer its teams a room in which to practice is disappointing.
Sambasivam said that UC Irvine’s stadium brought in people from on campus and off, and that people could spend time there.
UCLA can also help its esports teams address challenges that traditional sports do not share. For example, Yen said competitive esports leagues must license games if they want to stream or broadcast their games, which in turn help players and games gain followings.
“Nobody owns basketball,” Yen said. “But with esports, you have to work closely with the company who made the game, and a league can make a huge difference there.”
UCLA is in close proximity to several major game developers, such as Riot Games, the LA-based creator of “League of Legends,” and Electronic Arts, the creator of “Battlefield.” The campus also offers a considerable student-player base for these companies. Considering the university has an involved gaming community and is larger than most schools involved in esports, it is an apt place to help esports leagues get streaming rights.
UCLA and its teams should also keep in mind the consequences of a major university endorsing esports, including inadvertently drawing the eye of the NCAA.
Last August, the NCAA began a formal analysis of the current state of collegiate esports, followed by a request for industry experts to help incorporate esports into the association – a move wildly unpopular in the esports community. Yen said he believes the NCAA’s recruitment scandals and outdated regulations are reason enough to resist the association marching into esports.
For example, player compensation, currently prohibited for NCAA athletes, is a necessary facet of esports. Sambasivam said that his club offers cash prizes for their tournaments to bring in competitors from UCLA and beyond, and national esports tournaments offer cash prizes of averages $15,000 per player.
But the NCAA is wading in anyway. There’s simply too much money in esports for the association to ignore it. And there are several upsides to this integration. Yen said the NCAA could help normalize esports and expand its fan base out of its current niche. If esports teams attach themselves to a NCAA powerhouse like UCLA, they could use that partner to try to challenge the regulations they deem outdated, while enjoying the stability and publicity the NCAA provides.
And that recognition is at least partially underway. Liza David, a spokeswoman for UCLA Athletics, said UCLA Recreation has been considering making esports a club sport.
Discussions, however, are as far as the support goes. David said no plans currently exist for UCLA Athletics to get behind esports teams.
“There are other universities across the country that are far more advanced in establishing their esports programs, and those would be the best universities to provide leadership as it relates to the NCAA (integrating esports),” David said.
But that shouldn’t preclude UCLA from starting to offer assistance to its esports teams. If anything, getting involved with esports now would make up for UCLA’s late entry into the gaming scene.
UCLA is rightly proud of its 114 NCAA championship trophies. But it should start laying groundwork now so it can add to that number with “Rocket League.”