Yesterday, the Governor of California signed into law a bill that will allow student athletes to hire agents and set up endorsement deals while they are playing for college teams. Everyone knows the NCAA and the institutions in California opposed the bill and have fought heavily to prevent it from happening. The amateurism model has existed for a long period of time and will more than likely continue to exist for a little while longer.
Maybe, college athletics could learn a few lessons from their esports peers in how to allow athletes to earn money, while also creating fair play and allowing them to represent their school in the process. Let’s take a quick look at the big money question in college esports.
First and foremost — there is no NCAA involvement in esports. The challenge of fitting esports into an athletics program is the primary reason for that, but there is something else that has been holding up involvement. The amateurism rules in the NCAA do not generally fit in with how college esports currently works.
We aren’t talking about students being able to play on a true professional team and on their local college team. We aren’t even talking about all the players that play on so-called “semi-professional” teams in many leagues.
What I am talking about is the fact that esports is more than just playing games for a team. It involves an entire industry of professions that students can participate in while simultaneously playing for their teams (media, broadcasting, marketing, finance, event planning, coaching, the list goes on and on). All of these opportunities are essentially preparing them for a future career in esports.
When you talk to most people about esports, generally they go straight to thinking about “playing video games for a living.” The reality, kind of like regular sports, is that there are more career opportunities in broadcasting and production of esports events than there are for actual players on the teams.
If a student wants to get into the streaming or broadcasting business, they can do that now, while also playing on the team. We as universities can, and do, provide them learning opportunities to better those skills. This is also true for professional athletes. How many color commentators on ESPN are former players? How did they learn that skill?
Here is the strange thing: We currently do this right now. Plenty of students are on the UT Athletics payroll as student workers, but for whatever reason we have decided, the “athlete” isn’t eligible for those same benefits.
The other thing about esports is that the competition arm of the sports is still a young person’s game. Many of the top professionals in some esports are not much older than 21 themselves. Some would argue this is because their isn’t yet a defined path to pro which involves colleges, and of course as more and more college teams develop the infrastructure to support their players this will change, but for now the reality is some former “pros” currently have the opportunity to come back to school and play for a college.
Is this fair? Not really, and that can be worked out and changed. But that is the current meta.
These are the two obvious arguments. There is also one other thing to point out: Most esports athletes in college do not currently receive benefits for “esports.” It is true that some students are on scholarships at various schools around the country, but in the current landscape, most “programs” are no more than student run and student-initiated clubs representing their schools in esports. And for the most part these students are doing it for nothing more than “gaining experience.”
But that shouldn’t stop schools and the NCAA from wanting to change that landscape. And while these institutions and states are working on how to provide these representatives of their schools with the scholarship opportunities they have earned, perhaps the students in esports can teach athletics and the NCAA about the bounty of opportunities available for student athletes to learn how to be professionals. Professionals need to learn how to work with agents, negotiate brand deals, handle the public scrutiny and manage their money.
Better to learn it while in college where they are surrounded by a safety net to catch them when they fall than to throw them to the wolves with a degree and no proper training. And while we are at it, everyone else can make money on Twitch and Youtube, why not talented 18-22 year-old athletes?
UTK Esports is a student organization at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, interested in competing in and promoting collegiate and professional esports. If you have questions or would like to join and compete, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow us on Twitter @utkesports.
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