Utah Adds Esports Program, Will NCAA Follow?

With Utah becoming the first Power Five school to add an esports program, it seems the NCAA will soon get in on the hustle

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Apr 06, 2017 at 12:51 PM ET

The University of Utah announced on Wednesday that the school would be the first from a Power Five athletic conference to add an esports program because, if there’s anything lacking on the modern college campus, it’s video games.

That said, even a survey from six years ago pre-dates the boom of esports’ professionalization. The market research firm Newzoo projected that the burgeoning industry will net $1.1 billion in revenue by 2019, as reported by [a]list. Utah is a natural fit given that the school already boasts a video-game development program that has topped the Princeton Review’s rankings three of the last five years. The Salt Lake Tribune noted that the university’s student esports club, Crimson Gaming, has more than 600 registered members.

Utah’s administration-sanctioned foray into esports will begin small, with partial scholarships for the 35 slots in the program and only one sponsored game, League of Legends, although there are plans for four games and, eventually, full scholarships for the players. Yes, this will incite thousands of high schoolers to insist to their parents that playing video games is just as much a part of their college prep as trigonometry and European history.

The Utes aren’t entirely pioneers, however, as non-Power Five schools such as Robert Morris University have scholarship-granting esports teams that pre-date Utah. UC-Irvine has its own esports arena on campus. A 2014 New York Times article said 10,000 students participated in the largest college league—double the number of Division I men’s basketball players.

A.J. Dimick, who’ll be the inaugural director, told Bloomberg the hope is that peer schools will follow suit to form a structured league, but there’s an obvious incentive to being first and, subsequently, to having the best such program.

“We expect that this will increase our number of applicants to the university,” Entertainment Arts & Engineering director Robert Kessler told ESPN.

Even though the esports program will, notably, fall outside the purview of the athletic department and the governance of the NCAA, Utah’s athletic conference is already eager to cash in on the industry. Last May, the Pac-12 Network announced that it would begin organizing and broadcasting esports tournaments.

The growth of esports made their formal placement in the university setting inevitable, and this push could facilitate more organization in the intercollegiate competitions already happening at the club level. But hopefully the NCAA will stay away because, for now, esports players can win thousands of dollars at tournaments, profit that the NCAA will undoubtedly squelch as soon as it gets its paws on the thing.