Overcoming Old School: Panel Including Mark Cuban and Big 12 Commissioner Debate Esports Role on Campus

June 7, 2018

“I think League of Legends, as an example, is more of a sport than golf,” said Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and the NBA 2K League team Mavs Gaming.

“If you play League of Legends, it takes hand-eye coordination, it takes focus, it takes the ability to process information as quickly, if not faster, than the amount of time it takes for processing baseball in terms of what pitch is coming at you.”

He also said that if he sees that a job applicant plays League of Legends, he knows that person  can process a lot of information and make decisions quickly.

Photo Credit: USA Today

Cuban gave this opinion at the Big 12 Conference’s seventh “State of College Athletics” Forum where he was asked to participate in a debate over whether university esports programs should be housed in the athletics program. The featured panelists Included:

Esports are growing in popularity, and many universities are wondering what to do with the clubs currently on campus. What was once seen as students participating in a fun diversion is quickly becoming recognized as athletes competing in an organized sport. For universities, there is also a second element to consider: money. High-level esports are becoming very lucrative, and if college esports programs become part of the NCAA, more of those funds would be funneled to the college.

Photo Credit: The Esports Observer

This would be beneficial to the college and the program (much of that money would go back into the esports program), but it could also keep some of the best players from joining the program.

“I think it’d be a big mistake to run it (the esports program) in the athletic department,” said Cuban. “It seems really cool, right? ‘Hey, we’re athletes now, we’re part of the athletics program. We do a lot of the same things.’ But, look what happened in basketball. The same thing is going to happen with esports because of all the money. All of the sudden, you’re coming out of high school, and you’re on the high school club, you have an amazing personality,  you’ve got 700,000 simultaneous viewers when you run a Twitch, you’ve got 16 million subscribers, and then you go to college — you’re not going to be able to play with your college team as part of the athletic department. What I would tell you is, the gamers are smarter than the jocks. You can put together a better program that’s (not part of) the NCAA. And it’s not a knock on athletes. It’s a knock on the NCAA. They can’t get out of their own way. If someone showed the NCAA how to make $100 bills for 50 cents, they would screw it up.”

It would be very hard to ask a successful streamer who is already making money from his or her skills as a gamer to give up that revenue stream in order to play for a college athletic team. Due to NCAA  rules, college athletes cannot be paid for their play and cannot make money off their likeness. The NCAA has been pretty unforgiving when it comes to the monetization of online accounts. Recently, a kicker from Central Florida, Donald De La Haye, and a cross country athlete from Texas A&M, Ryan Palmer, lost their eligibility due to ad revenue from YouTube accounts.

Another issue that could arise is Title IX compliance since esports players are disproportionately  male.

Photo Credit: Medium 

“From our perspective, we have an NCAA compliance piece,” said Gene Taylor, Director of Athletics for Kansas State University. “We have a lot of rules that govern what we do on a day-to-day basis with student athletes. If we were to take (an esports team) and fit it exactly like an athletic team, how does NCAA compliance affect the timeline piece? Those things are certainly concerns and questions that I’m asking. Can you bring it in and run it like you would a club team through athletics? … If you have an esports person that might be able to make money on their own, how does that affect their eligibility? And the NCAA, right now, is just not prepared to tackle this, in my opinion.”

Ready or not, this is an issue the NCAA will need to tackle – and sooner rather than later.

Another concern the NCAA will need to overcome is some old school thinking about esports by some of its high-ranking members – including member of the panel and Commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, Bob Bowlsby. In December of 2017, Bowlsby was asked how esports compared to traditional sports.

“First of all, it’s a misnomer. It isn’t sports,” he said. “And so therefore, it looks very different than what we do every day. I can’t think of a single motivation to get involved in it other than the money, and I just am sort of lost in the conversation of it because if we wanted to make money, I guess we could get into real estate development, and we could get into other things that are misaligned with our core business. It’s entertainment. It’s games. I don’t see how it aligns with what we do every day.”

Again, this is the man in charge of football, basketball, baseball and other… oh, what’s the word?… games, that’s it, games for the Big 12 Conference.

When he appeared on the esports panel in May, Bowlsby softened his stance, somewhat.

“The question that I ask is, why? Why do we do this? There’s a money motivation. There’s apparently a lot of money to be made. But, there are high-level competitions that go on all over campus that compete interscholastically, intercollegiate, that are not housed in the athletics department. … I don’t denigrate the skill, I don’t denigrate the interest, I don’t denigrate its place on campus. I question and ask, why would it reside within the athletics program?”

Photo Credit: UCI Esports

In the end, the Big 12 Commissioner may be right, but for the wrong reasons. Esports may not fit within a college athletic department. Colleges and universities may be able to find a way to award esports scholarships while still enabling online monetization by keeping esports and athletics separate. However, these decisions will need to be made, and soon, because esports are, in fact, a sport – a new kind of sport and need to be approached in a new way to be successful.

Those who insist on thinking old school should not be surprised to find themselves left behind.