Loc Tran wanted to go pro straight out of high school. He’d cleared it with his parents. If he qualified for the League of Legends Championship Series — the pinnacle of professional video game competition (a.k.a. e-sports) — college would have to wait.
“I was two wins away,” recalled Tran, with just a touch of longing.
It didn’t happen. His team, Soul Control, lost. The San Ramon, California, native was back to Plan B: enroll at San Jose State.
Tran, 22, said he almost quit for good after that. But a couple of his friends were part of what he calls a “pretty good” League of Legends team at San Jose State. The five-man group was short one key position: “jungler,” so named because the player lurks in the jungles that separate lanes on a League of Legends map.
It just so happened that Tran is a skilled jungler.
“There’s money to be won,” his friend told him.
That clinched it. Tran joined the SJSU Dream Team, and in his freshman year it placed second at the inaugural North American Collegiate Championship — a feat, recalls Tran, that earned each player between $7,000 and $8,000 in prize money.
Two years later, he was recruited away from San Jose State by the University of California, Irvine, an up-and-comer with plans to transform itself into “the Duke Basketball of esports.”
Tran attends a Division I school (he’s majoring in business and econ) and gets paid to play video games. What more could a gamer want?
In the past two years, the phenomenon of e-sports — professional video gaming that features organized team franchises, leagues, big prize money, and six-figure annual earnings for top players — has become a major story in the world of sports and entertainment. What started as explicitly a marketing exercise by game publishers eager to push sales of their top titles suddenly became, according to Mark Deppe, the acting director of UC Irvine’s e-sports program, “the future of competition.” The last year has been particularly busy. After three-time NBA champion Rick Fox spent a rumored $1 million to purchase a League of Legends team in late December 2015, a cavalcade of other sports stars, traditional franchises like the Philadelphia 76ers, media distribution networks, and other investors started pouring money into every facet of the business.
Collegiate e-sports, comparatively, has flown under the radar. Sure, anyone with even a passing acquaintance with modern university life knows that gaming is now as much a part of the college experience as beer pong or blowing off a midterm, but organized competition didn’t start until the formation of the Collegiate Starleague in 2009. A handful of universities started offering e-sports scholarships in 2014. Riot Games, the company that makes League of Legends, hosted its first collegiate championship in February 2014, and in 2015, the gaming company Blizzard launched a college tournament for its new game Heroes of the Storm with the promise that the winning team could win as much as $75,000 in free tuition for each member.
The question of whether or not video gaming could reasonably be classified as a college athletic sport didn’t seem to bother the people playing the games or the companies offering cash rewards.
What you have to understand about e-sports, says Ferguson Mitchell of The Esports Observer, is that the people who participate in competitive gaming at the collegiate level are basically “volunteers … marketing a commercial product.”
So far, the financial rewards offered by the likes of Blizzard and Riot for their eager hordes of volunteers are generally in the form of what is called “scholarship” prize money and supposedly is meant to be used only for paying off tuition. But the semantics are largely a formality. In Tran’s case, since he was current on his tuition fees at San Jose State, when his team placed second in 2014, the “scholarship” funds were transferred by the school’s finance department to his personal bank account, where they could be used however he wanted.
There’s money to be won? In traditional college sports, win or lose, players are supposed to be amateurs. They might get their scholarships paid for, in advance, as part of the recruitment process, but they don’t have any opportunities to “win” more cash depending on their performance in their chosen sport for their school. The gaming companies providing the prize money might call these awards “scholarships,” but what they really are is cash awarded for performance — which is a big change from how college sports usually work.
The e-sports example explodes the fiction of the amateur student-athlete and demonstrates a model in which the highly recruited athlete who is so valuable to the university can get paid for their performance. So, in a sense, it exposes the hypocrisy of the way the NCAA runs its show. The most peculiar part of this, which could also be seen as ramping up the hypocrisy factor, is that, generally speaking, the college kids with a shot to win money at e-sports come from more privileged backgrounds than the ones who are forbidden to profit in the traditional college sports world. That piles unfairness on top of unfairness. At some point, the levee has got to break.
In the NCAA, of course, everyone but the players make money. In 2016, incentives in University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban’s contract ensured a bonus of $125,000 for winning the SEC championship and another of $200,000 for making the College Football Playoff (and one of $300,000 if the Tide make the championship game) on top of his more-than–$6.9 million annual salary. The university itself also benefits financially from the team’s success, and that doesn’t even include the millions of dollars it earns in endorsement payouts from its Nike deal (which also includes financial incentives for team success).
Win big, and everybody makes bank — except for the players. Yes, players get their education paid for via scholarships, and, thanks to recent court cases, some now receive spending-money allowances, depending on their institution. There’s also no doubt that a championship will deliver fame and glory, and for the elite athletes who have a genuine chance at a pro career, hitting a buzzer-beating 3 or running back a game-winning pick-six could boost one’s draft stock. But while everybody else is cashing in, the players who do the heavy lifting, put in long practice hours, and risk career-ending injuries are not rewarded the same way.
From the NCAA’s point of view, the rules against compensation are all about maintaining the purity of the “student-athlete” amateur. It’s a point of view that hasn’t held up well as college sports have become big business. As the historian Taylor Branch wrote in his masterful denunciation of the current state of college athletics, there is “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation” in the spectacle of the labor of young black men being exploited for the huge profit of others.
Meanwhile, surveys have shown and observers confirm that top collegiate and pro gamers are overwhelmingly white and Asian males who come from families that can afford decent gaming rigs. Without ever having to worry about a concussion or an ACL tear, they have a shot at making real money, while kids who come from far less privileged backgrounds are forbidden, at pain of losing their eligibility, from doing so much as exchanging a game jersey for a tattoo.
“I think the [college athlete] players should be paid for their efforts,” says Tran. “They are in there busting their ass[es] off. They are hoping for a big [pro] payday, but only like 1 percent of them get that, right? It just seems really weird because everyone around [them] is making so much money.”
E-sports is charting a different path, perhaps because the line between amateur and professional has never been clearly drawn in competitive video-gaming, or perhaps because the basic commercial nature of the enterprise is obvious to everyone. The game publishers subsidize e-sports as a marketing exercise designed to sell more games, so why shouldn’t participants get a piece of the pie? Whatever the reason, the expectation is widespread in e-sports: Winning at the highest level, whether in college or not, should get you a payday.
Could e-sports lead the way to a fairer future for college athletes?
Mark Deppe is not joking in the least when he talks about UC Irvine becoming the Duke of e-sports. He speaks with the quiet intensity of someone who is confident he knows what the future looks like and is determined to be a part of it.
Deppe doesn’t consider himself a hardcore gamer, even if he acknowledges playing too much Starcraft while he was a student at UCLA in the early aughts. After graduating, he worked in event planning at UCLA and Irvine, and then decided to get an MBA. His final graduate school project involved an investigation of the economics of the booming e-sports world, and that, in turn, encouraged him to suggest to Irvine that the university try to become a center of collegiate e-sports.
Deppe conceived and executed an ambitious plan for Irvine to go all in on competitive gaming and convinced the school to let him be in charge. He secured funding from Riot Games and IBuyPower, a high-end gaming machine company, to build a state-of-the-art gaming arena on campus. He orchestrated a plan to offer talented gamers as many as 10 scholarships equivalent to about half the cost of in-state tuition. The best of the new recruits were handpicked to join a new League of Legends team, proudly bearing the same Anteater nickname as Irvine’s traditional athletic teams and destined to represent Irvine in future collegiate e-sports competitions.
Like a Division I football team located in a lush recruiting region like Florida or Texas, Irvine boasts natural advantages to becoming an e-sports powerhouse. Orange County is a hotbed of the gaming industry; the headquarters of Blizzard Entertainment, one of the biggest e-sports companies and makers of World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, and Overwatch, is just a few miles away. Irvine offers a computer game science major, and in 2015 College Magazine ranked Irvine the no. 1 school to go for gaming.
Four out of the five members of Irvine’s new League of Legends team are former semi-pros or full-time professionals, Deppe told me. The most famous member of the team is probably Lyubomir “BloodWater” Spasov, who played for several professional teams, once making it as far as the League of Legends World Championship while playing for Team Vulcun.
Originally from Bulgaria, Spasov’s family moved to Southern California to provide their children with a better education when he was 11 years old. Now 23, Spasov says that after high school he was able support himself while playing professionally and going to community college, but “it was hard.” (The hour-and-40 minute commute between his school and the Vulcun team house was particularly brutal, he recalls.) By the time he learned (via a text from a friend) that Irvine was offering e-sports scholarships, he’d been out of the professional scene for a couple of years. But his reputation led him to a starting position on Irvine’s League team.
As a former pro, Spasov understandably sees nothing wrong with college players getting compensated.
“It sets an example to the player that if he or she does well, there will be, like, a reward,” said Spasov. “I think that’s good motivation both for the team and the player.”
But how exactly does that work? A pro basketball player can’t go back to college and play college ball. And you absolutely, positively aren’t supposed to be compensated for winning. I asked Deppe how it was possible for collegiate esports to cross lines forbidden by the NCAA.
Easy: “We’re not governed by the NCAA,” answered Deppe.
Deppe is skeptical that the NCAA, or any other independent third party, will soon be calling the shots on collegiate e-sports. His main reason: E-sports games are owned by game publishers, who control all intellectual property rights associated with their products. If anyone would have the power to define the difference between amateur and professional status, for example, it would be companies like Riot or Blizzard.
(I sent several requests to the NCAA asking how it was approaching e-sports but received only a short email from a spokesperson saying that she had not “seen any NCAA programs that have this in their sport sponsorship.” When I followed up asking for more clarity, and identifying UC Irvine example, I received no further response.)
But whether or not the NCAA or another party eventually does get involved skirts the key question: Is it fair that some kids can make money while competing for their university but others can’t? Absolutely not, said Deppe.
“It’s crazy to me that coaches and administrators make millions and kids can’t get paid,” he said.
Thinking out loud, he suggested something that flipped the question on whether collegiate e-sports competitions should be handled in the same way as sports governed by the NCAA. What about the exact opposite? Why not imagine the NCAA working more like e-sports? Deppe believes that collegiate e-sports is an example of how to fix things.
“I think the general public perception these days is [college basketball and football players] should be more compensated than they currently are,” said Deppe. “E-sports started that way. It started from the perspective that you should get paid or compensated or rewarded for success. I think the pressure [to change] will increase when the general public becomes more aware that there is a model out there for colleges to compensate the players who are dedicating their time and effort and making sacrifices.”
Could a bunch of gamers topple the entrenched system at the heart of the American sports-industrial complex? It makes more sense than you might think. Arguing whether or not e-sports is “true” athletic competition on par with basketball or football misses the point. College basketball and football, as currently governed by the NCAA, are billion-dollar businesses with an illusion of amateurism that’s less and less connected to reality every day.
Collegiate e-sports, on the other hand, are an integral part of another billion-dollar business, one that isn’t concerned with imagined purity.
The key difference between collegiate e-sports and the old-school college sports world is that the kids who are playing video games actually stand to get a piece of the action when they excel at the highest level, while the kids who put a basketball through a hoop or catch a football in the end zone don’t stand to get anything beyond their scholarships and a shot, for a tiny handful, of one day getting at the pro leagues.
It’s the difference between honest capitalism and an exploitive sham. Or, as Tran simply puts it, “it just seems kind of unfair.”