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Next level in the game

Imagine an arena of cheering fans bathed in fluorescent light, all focused on a group of headphone-clad competitors in the center of the room. Instead of dashing across a field, dribbling a ball or crashing into one another at full force, these student-athletes sit at desks, swipe mice across tabletops and tap away on keyboards. Behind them is a large screen where colorful characters battle, hurling fireballs, destroying buildings, and competing for dominance in a vibrant fictional world. This is the playing field of Pac-12’s newest sporting event: eSports.


While not every eSports competition may be as grandiose as tournaments like The International, presented by Valve, or Blizzard’s Heroes of the Dorm — gaming competitions with cash prizes ranging from thousands to millions of dollars — the University of Oregon is now participating in a joint effort with the Pac-12 to bring such spectacles to collegiate competition at UO.

Last May, the Pac-12 announced that it would be officially endorsing eSports competition later this year through Pac-12 Networks — a sports-focused television network owned by the Pac-12 Conference. In the months since, Pac-12 Networks has contacted associated universities to begin talks on how to organize and support what it calls “The Pac-12 Networks eSports Program.”

Consumers spent $22.41 billion on the video game industry in 2014, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The Pac-12’s decision to get in on a budding industry is being mimicked by other sport organizations, such as the NBA: Philadelphia 76er’s CEO Scott O’Neil announced Wednesday they are buying two eSports teams, Dignitas and Apex, on the premise of “getting out in front.”        

According to Ryan Currier, vice president of digital products for the Pac-12 Networks, there are several reasons why the Pac-12 makes a great candidate as the first major conference to endorse eSports competition.

“First, college eSports is in its initial stages, but Pac-12 universities are increasingly involved in it through passionate student groups and have had success in existing competitions,” Currier said. “Second, eSports also has compelling ties to the academic missions of our schools, including departments at Pac-12 universities such as computer science, visual and cinematic arts, engineering and others.”

The previous two championship teams from the Heroes of the Dorm tournament were from University of California, Berkeley and Arizona State University, both of which are Pac-12 schools. Members of the winning teams received up to $25,000 a year in rewards for tuition.

Each of the Pac-12 schools are invited to participate in the first year of competition and each will be responsible for establishing its own competitive team. Representatives from each university have been involved in ongoing talks about collegiate eSports.

There’s also been much discussion on who exactly will organize and support a collegiate eSports team at UO. So far, none of the athletic programs from any of the 12 universities have been involved with the upcoming eSports program. Instead, the Pac-12 Networks has primarily reached out to established eSports clubs and leaders for input. As of right now, it is unclear where eSports teams fit in at UO.

The Pac-12 Networks requested that schools have both a faculty and student representative to participate in ongoing discussions, while not necessarily being involved with the team later on. For UO, the staff representative is Erica Swanson, the director of parent and family programs. The student representative is Carter Fritsch, the programs administrator for the ASUO and vice president of the only ASUO-recognized eSports-related student organization, the UO Smash Club — a group that meets weekly to play Super Smash Brothers games.

According to Swanson, one topic that has inspired debate is whether or not collegiate eSports competitors would fall under NCAA amateur status. If so, this might bar them from competing in other competitions, such as Heros of the Dorm, or from earning revenue by Twitch-streaming and creating YouTube content, as many professional gamers do.

Another concern that Swanson noted is whether Title IX requirements for equal opportunity based on gender will apply. According to a survey by WellPlayed, an eSports tournament production company, the viewership of eSport events is roughly 94 percent male and 3 percent female. At competitions, females only represent one of every 10 competitors.

More concerns include which games should be played, which companies would agree to have their games featured and what level of fantasy violence is acceptable for broadcast by the Pac-12 Networks.

“I’m just so fascinated and encouraged by the thoughtfulness that’s happening at the Pac-12 level and by the representatives from the schools,” said Swanson.  “There have been a few female members  involved in those discussions and they’re concerned about what it means to be a female gamer. Even though women are involved, they are still underrepresented, in terms of female professional or amateur gamers.”

Tryouts for the Pac-12 Networks eSports Program collegiate teams may begin as soon as October or November. According to Currier, there will be a competitive season that will include head-to-head matchups and events. This will likely include a tournament in conjunction with a Pac-12 championship event.

Another faculty member who has been involved in the discussion is Julie Scroggins, the ASUO student organization advisor, who is excited for the potential to increase student participation on campus by taking advantage of the opportunity to cater to the gaming generation.

“I think the more variety of things we can offer students to find something they can connect with the better,” said Scroggins. “There’s a pretty low entry point and you don’t necessarily need to be awesome and to always have been playing well to be a gamer. I think that’s exciting.”


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Mathew Brock

Mathew Brock