The BIG EAST Conference formalized their Division I eSports league standing by joining the Electronic Gaming Federation (EGF) and competing for a National Championship with 39 total DI varsity programs. The 11-member schools are scheduled to play a three-year, multigame season for the first time ever with membership in the official EGF Collegiate (EGFC) league. I grew up when Big East Basketball was just blowing up on ESPN some forty years ago showcasing the intense rivalries between NYC and neighboring state schools. Cable TV was responsible for Georgetown Hoyas player Patrick Ewing and his Head Coach, John Thompson (RIP), and Chris Mullin and St. John’s University, becoming household names like Piranha and several shoutcaster’s have done so already with video game communities. To witness the emergence of a new, collegiate eSport championship across several extended titles with the potential to be as popular as Big East Basketball was in American history at it’s peak because of streaming is both humbling to live through and uber cool to cover. The Sports Techie community blog chatted with Eric Johnson, CEO, about this ground-breaking story, the sky-rocketing industry and the road to the Rocket League, Overwatch, SSBU and FIFA, nationwide intercollegiate competition championships. The NCAA is not associated with EGF however it is an institutional organization headquartered in Manhattan, New York.
eSports is Big College Business
You may not know it, but competitive video gaming may soon enough be the third or fourth most popular spectator sport in the country and world. First, you have football or soccer depending on where you live. Basketball is next. Baseball is considered too boring for many GenZ kids making video gaming the up and comer sport as more and more kids, teens and adults play an assortment of near addicting and sim like MMO and individual play titles.
In 2019, over $1 billion in eSports revenue was produced worldwide and the pandemic year of 2020 should dwarf that as orders and requests to stay at home to combat the spread of COVID-19 logically would cause more people to play video games as a means to pass quarantine time. Growth projections for the year 2022 in terms of competitors entered in competitions and increased viewership numbers is predicted to be around 300 million gamers and fans.
This all began with EGF founder Tyler Schrodt operating esports tournaments from his dorm at RIT. EGF is now the national governing body for both high school and D-I college esports leagues. The EGFC D-I league and Collegiate Power Series transformed in 2020 through a five-year agreement with Walt Disney World for the 2020 Walt Disney World EGF High School National Championship.
Esports teams began as a college campus club. In 2015, it morphed into the first Division I eSports collegiate programs now numbering more than 100 teams across the United States including the Big East Conference and Metro Atlantic Conference (MAAC). Johnson mentioned the High School National Championship on ESPN2 last year as a significant achievement for EGF and the burgeoning sport. Talks have been ongoing since Dec 2019 with Disney to be an eSports partner in Orlando.
I asked EJ about the EGF business model. He responded, “The model of business lets universities be in the space in the long-term, healthy way.” He added, “EGF formalized the ecosystem, adding more structure.”
This led me to ask about their standing and relationship with the giant, powerful and influential, NCAA. Johnson explained, “The NCAA is different in that they bring many of those systems to play.”
EGF provides scheduling on behalf of the schools, they create custom content and in-depth profiles of the Big East’s finest gamers, senior leaders, and incoming freshman recruits. “NCAA has media partners that do all that,” shared Johnson. EGF is essentially not in the same space as the NCAA.
Johnson says some college eSports players may have received some level of payment while in high school or even middle school. Elementary aged gamers are getting endorsements and sponsorships as well as keeping their name and image likeness, just like grown-ups. These issues will have to be dealt with in the near-future by EFG.
Like any formalized sport, drug problems are real and gaming is not an exception. Yes, there are clean gamers but there are also gamers that use drugs whether for performance enhancement, improved acuity or for recreational use. Most pro and collegiate sports organizations are drug testing one way or another. Not so yet with the EGFC.
When asked about drug testing in the EFGC, Johnson said, “not currently.” He added, “Mental health is inclusive as part of governance, it may double by Spring, we are creating steering committees and NGB’s to address these things, make sure schools have a hand in it, and expectations, from compliance. The bottom line is an interest to work with schools in understanding as far as what is best for the school, alumni bases, and how it connects to schools.” Johnson finished up on the topic by saying, “Typically, testing is run by student affairs or an academic partner.”
In many ways, expect recruitment and sponsorships in the space resembles traditional collegiate sport programs. The Big East has 4,100 student-athletes playing on over 200 men’s and women’s teams across 22 sports and now you can add in eSports student-athletes to the metrics.
The emergence of competitive video games allows for advanced programs to be developed. “Think of it as the spectrum where each institution has been,” says Johnson, “And then, tie that onto STEM, game design curriculum, internships, and career placement.” They are working with Microsoft on life skills type programs for the collegiate gamer.
The EFF is also there to support local sponsorship on campus. Johnson feels there is room for 6-8 league sponsors and an official partner of the of the leagues after proving the concept.
EGFC Video Games Competition
The inaugural EGFC season for the Big East starts on Monday, October 5. The first go round consists of two eight-week splits. Teams then play for the conference championships followed by regional playoffs. All the animated gaming fun ends with the EGFC National Championship, held April 24-25, 2021. It sure would be nice to have a COVID-19 vaccine in place by next year so fans can watch the action in person but streaming is a nice option for all.
Each school picks games based on a menu of options. They can then choose to or not to have invitationals, regular season, conference and championships, whether to have a 21-week vs 5-week option, a red shirt component, and how to to give back to the community.
Most Big East collegiate eSports fans stream the matches to their campus dorm rooms, apartments and houses on a variety of digital devices as they root on their university classmates. All matches are to be broadcast over free streaming on 5 EGF Twitch channels, the Big East YouTube Channel and school feeds. Look for additional content on EGF Facebook and Instagram.
Johnson said feeds on both Twitch and school platforms are, “A nonlinear approach because that is where the world is going.” Streaming events and matches on 4-5 channels at a time is status que for their target market.
Eight of the top 36 largest media markets are Big East members including, Butler University, University of Connecticut, Creighton University, DePaul University, Georgetown University, Marquette University, Providence College, St. John’s University, Seton Hall University, Villanova University and Xavier University.
“We’re very excited that the relationship BIG EAST esports has enjoyed with EGF will be continuing for the next three years with league membership across many titles,” said BIG EAST Commissioner Val Ackerman. “We’re grateful for the outstanding leadership EGF provides annually to collegiate esports and look forward to partnering to bring compelling rivalry matches and broadcasts to our fans around the country.”
Ackerman is a long-time friend of Johnson’s. He said back in December, they ran a tournament and Val was complimentary on the execution and was impressed how the focus by EGF was on students and institutions.
Johnson worked at ESPN for 20 years and helped build out global ad revenue. What he helped to build, college football and basketball took to market. ESPN now owns the rights to many properties including most Bowls. Competitive video gaming is one the same, accelerated path believes Johnson. He has been with EGF for two-years.
His aha moment happened when he watched his all-state baseball playing son play MLB The Show video game while his daughter watched streaming League of Legends competitions. EJ saw the same connections pushing and pulling collegiate gaming as happened with college football and basketball.
He asked me whether I knew how large eSports communities are on campus. I had a suspicion it’s popular but did not know the full extent. Johnson likens this opportunity to the NCAA and the Power 5 Conferences in that the biggest brands are coming under one roof to create the best commercial opportunity, which is exactly what the EFG is to the management team.
For more info or to inquire about participating as a collegiate program, see EGF.gg.
Sports Techie, both inclusion and diversity are important to EGFC and the Big East Conference. Bravo to all involved for adding these important civil priorities.
Wellness for athletes is something I like to think about in terms of fitness, strength and conditioning, nutrition, and sleep, because these are sure fire ways to get a competitive edge on your opponent. Look for more EGF content and programs on wellness soon.
The path to pro eSports can start with EGFC but the Big East has a partner more concerned about career growth, jobs, and growing the industry, members can work in to.
Johnson says the company partners with many orgs. One such partner is Rage Against the Disorder, a non-profit with programs created for students. Some schools have it, some don’t but EJ says it is scalable.
If you are not of college age yet and are looking for a future in video games, or your son or daughter are interested in gaming at a university, the Big East just might have a scholarship waiting for you.
EGFC welcomes Big East gamer student-athletes with open, virtual arms.
See you later sportstechie in Seattle, Atlanta and around the world!
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