The Old College Try: Pac-12 Conference Exploring Esports Launch This Year

Written By Will Green on June 22, 2016 - Last Updated on January 22, 2018

The Pac-12 Conference is considering launching its new televised esports initiative with a short competition in late Fall of 2016, and a possible follow-up competition in early 2017, ESBR has learned.

The conference is reportedly considering organizing shorter, three- or four-day tournaments, pegged to existing Pac-12 championship events in NCAA-sanctioned sports, as opposed to a multi-week league.

The tournaments would be among the first collegiate esports competitions ever to take place entirely within the parameters of an existing Division I athletic conference. Current collegiate esports tournaments, such as the University League of Legends Championship, involve several schools across several NCAA divisions and conferences.

Pac-12 commissioner takes active role in fact-finding

Last month, the Pac-12 announced it would launch an esports competition during the 2016-17 academic year that would be broadcast on Pac-12 Networks, the conference’s television channel, but did not divulge further details.

In February, a conference commission dedicated to exploring esports began meeting in person with clubs and faculty representatives from schools, including the Utah, Cal and Stanford.

Conference commissioner Larry Scott is said to be leading the commission and taking an especially active role in the group’s fact-finding mission, meeting personally with students and school leaders.

The commission focused less on whether collegiate esports would be a viable initiative, and more about learning about the culture of esports clubs on campuses, according to those interviewed.

Esports leaders at other schools like UCLA and Washington, however, said they were not initially contacted or consulted by the conference.

Discussions are still ongoing with a number of schools, and the conference said it intends to continue keep lines of communication open.

League of Legends a possible title

One of the central questions facing organizers is what game title or titles to offer in the 2016-17 competitions. A source with the conference said it was still looking in to which title to offer, as well as what tournament format would work best. The source said that the process is still evolving and that key decisions were likely to be made by the fall.

Leaders from esports clubs at Pac-12 schools told ESBR that the conference would likely aim to support multiple titles, although not necessarily all at once right off the bat. The conference did not confirm this. 

The most popular game played at Pac-12 schools is League of Legends. It’s unclear whether game maker Riot, who already has a strong collegiate presence by virtue of its operation of uLoL, would endorse or sign off on a separate, Pac 12-broadcast competition involving one of its games.

A representative said that the conference has communicated with all the major game makers, but did not reveal the nature of those conversations.

If the conference either initially or eventually embrace multiple titles, it would almost certainly need multiple leagues. Esports is to the word “sports” as games like LoL are to associations like the NBA or the NFL.

Potential tie-in to basketball, football championships

The competitions could be anchored around conference championships in both football and basketball. The 2016 Pac-12 football championship will be held on Friday, Dec. 2, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

The conference’s 2017 men’s basketball championship, a four-day event hosted in March at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, provides an especially intriguing scenario for an esports competition. At least one Nevada casino has started hosting esports tournaments in a dedicated esports lounge, and others could soon follow suit.

Esports betting is legal in Nevada, and state regulators are looking to affirmatively legalize certain forms of esports wagering by the end of 2016, which could drive further consumption of games and competitions.

A multi-day, one-off tournament involving one game title would contrast with the longer-term, multi-league format that several esports club leaders told ESBR they suggested the conference adopt.

The Pac-12 Network has the infrastructure to host a competition, similar to how Turner hosts the ELEAGUE live in-studio, as well as the capacity to broadcast the event either linearly or digitally.

Several sources said that ultimately, the conference would like to tie esports competitions to its campuses, just as it does football, basketball and all other sports.

Esports cross over with academics

The conference source said that the drive for esports competitions rose out of not only the robust popularity and extant club infrastructure at its member schools, but also out of esports’ incipient connection to academics at each institution.

USC, for example, offers an academic minor in game design. Other schools have integrated aspects of gaming into their cinematic arts and engineering programs. No Pac-12 schools currently offer majors in video gaming or video game scholarships. 

UC Irvine, which sits squarely in the Pac 12’s footprint, announced in March that it was developing a holistic esports initiative for the Fall, including the development of 10 esports scholarships, and an esports arena to host League of Legends competitions. 

The conference’s footprint also overlaps directly with the corporate footprint of the gaming industry, with many campuses based in epicenters of esports industry:

  • The University of Washington and Valve share a home in western Washington;
  • USC and UCLA co-exist in southern California with companies like Riot and Activision;
  • Cal is just down the road from Electronic Arts’ headquarters.

The source said that many schools’ esports clubs, in the face of strong growth, were reaching out to the conference to provide legitimacy and organization. In part due to this aspect of self-selection, any eventual conference esports competition might not initially involve all 12 conference teams like a football or basketball league automatically would.

No other NCAA conference is believed to be formalizing similar esports plans at this time.

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