ANGELES — Duran Parsi headed to Pepperdine’s law
school three years ago with a mission: By the end, he’d
either practice law or commit to his fledgling e-sports
graduation near, Parsi might need to grant himself an
extension. Collegiate Star League, the 30-person
e-sports operation run from his apartment, has
essentially become the NCAA for video games.
company organized tournaments that 30,000 college
students in the U.S. and Canada participated in this
school year. Sponsorship sales tripled from last school
year, and enough cash remained for Parsi, 29, to live
off his business instead of student loans.
amateur e-sports trails the professional level in
fervor. Parsi doesn’t know whether the college sports
matches he organizes will rival the profits and appeal
of college basketball and football or grow into niche
money-suckers such as rugby and field hockey. The
company that makes the leading game "League of
Legends" expects to land in between, matching the
small, but loud fandoms of college baseball.
e-sports is a buzzword right now, but there’s a big
misconception about how big college e-sports is,"
Parsi said. "We have a lot of players, but the
audience is far behind."
audiences deliver broadcasting and advertising deals
that turn March Madness and bowl games into business
bonanzas. But eight livestreams this year of Big Ten
Conference e-sports matches drew zero revenue for the
league and a combined 2.1 million viewers, or less than
a single postseason college basketball game can draw
with its rich history and bracket-induced popularity.
firm — the top organizer of college e-sports by
participants — remains unprofitable.
venture started in college when University of California
at San Diego roommates pointed Parsi to the tech club’s
tournament for the intragalactic alien battle game
"StarCraft." Parsi, figuring an easy gold,
fell to bronze and exited surprised that 60 people
showed. Inspired by classmates’ skills, he arranged a
team and launched it into competition against other
the time he earned a master’s degree in international
relations from George Washington University, Parsi’s
little league had ballooned into a nationwide spectacle.
Collegiate Star League started featuring several games
in addition to "StarCraft." Landing the
perennial contract to run the technology and logistics
behind Riot Games’ university competition for
"League of Legends" boosted the company’s
league introduced multiple divisions of play, separating
schools by skill level, with separate champions crowned
in each game for each division. Prizes escalated from
mice and keyboards in 2012 to $200,000 this year.
Because NCAA rules don’t apply to e-sports, cash
prizes are fair game. But prizes might be phased out as
more schools offer scholarships, bringing e-sports in
line with the norms of traditional college athletics.
pace with player interest required Parsi to acquire
sponsors and more employees. He got the capital by
selling majority ownership of Collegiate Star League in
2015 to WorldGaming. The division of Canadian movie
theater chain Cineplex Inc. has high expectations for
diversifying its revenue.
want to be the de facto provider for collegiate
e-sports," said Wim Stocks, WorldGaming’s chief
Collegiate Star League is hobbled. Much like college
baseball, many top players turn pro before attending
college. That contributes to reduced popularity because
fans aren’t tuning in to track up-and-comers. Some
players return to college as part of
"retirement," but Parsi expects a ban on such
crossover in the interest of fairness.
personalities is the No. 1 issue we face," Parsi
stars, no fans. No fans, no sponsors.
is eyeing international competitions, hoping a global
audience is sizable enough to pique advertisers.
"League of Legends" creator Riot Games is
pursuing licensing and broadcasting partnerships with
U.S. collegiate conferences, such as the Big Ten and
Pac-12, in hopes that emphasizing regional rivalries
such as USC-UCLA draws fans.
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from gamemakers or streaming services improves
viewership. But turning to developers could backfire for
Parsi if they spot efficiencies in internally operating
the entire league.
instance, Valve, the cantankerous maker of popular
"Dota" and "Counter-Strike" games,
hasn’t raised concerns with Collegiate Star League
using them in leagues. But a sudden turnabout is
possible. Case in point: Blizzard Entertainment, which
owns collegiate events arm Tespa, stopped Parsi from
hosting a league for "Hearthstone" this school
year, he said.
insists emerging games continually will fill gaps. The
harder part, he says, is convincing school
administrators to get on board.
Morris University in downtown Chicago was the
trailblazer. The school has 65 gamers on school-funded
athletic scholarships that cover up to 70 percent of
college costs, said Kurt Melcher, who’s gone from
women’s soccer coach to executive director of
support leads to perks such as priority registration, so
players’ classes don’t conflict with practices. They
can get a dedicated space to gather — no more getting
kicked out of the library for playing games. Parsi
imagines schools absorbing his major expense: flying
players in for championships.
Irvine students scrounged up $250,000 from computer
makers and other companies to turn a billiards lounge
into a gaming enclave near the campus center. A dozen
gaming stations are reserved for the school’s
academic-scholarship "League of Legends"
players. About 50 computers are playable for $4 an hour,
with students crowding in on weekdays and teenagers and
their moms popping by on weekends.
Games prefers e-sports teams fall under athletics
departments, which enables them to tap existing
fundraising, marketing and compliance officials. They
already have know-how for everything from monitoring
players academic and behavioral performance to fostering
hype through rallies and online trash-talking.
of Legends’ is a sport, and it needs all these
structures around of it," said Michael Sherman,
Riot Games’ college e-sports lead.
and conference officials say e-sports give a slice of
students something bigger to care about than academics.
They also bring more programming to conference TV
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many aren’t yet ready to invest in e-sports.
Scholarships don’t yet pay off, whether from ticket
sales or attracting applicants. Constant operational
changes from game developers leave administrators and
students feeling raw.
having information about what you’re investing into is
the worst thing you can do," said Jesse Wang, UC
Irvine’s e-sports coordinator.
players’ latest criticism is the uncertain rules for
rare circumstances when a college player is drafted
mid-season by a pro team. Other frustrations include the
lack of opportunities to sell merchandise and tickets.
recent months, companies have promised increased
predictability. For instance, Riot Games has sent a
clear message that it will be the one to establish
e-sports rules for its games that Parsi and anyone else
it works with would have to abide by.
is open to official sanctioning from the NCAA, which
already works with outside organizations to oversee
sports such as shooting and rowing. Collegiate Star
League would welcome an NCAA partnership, if it’s in
the best interest of players, Parsi said.
e-sports like traditional college sports would add
significant regulation. But following NCAA rules
governing gender balance in competition and
compensation, for instance, would ultimately benefit
e-sports, organizers say.
an ideal world, the competition wouldn’t be about
winning money, but the competition would be the reward
itself," Parsi said.
rough estimates, about 20 in 1,000 college students
participate in traditional college athletics, while 2 in
1,000 compete in video games.
law school graduation looms, Parsi expects he’ll find
enough reason to believe those figures will inch closer
and Collegiate Star League will thrive. He might even
splurge this summer to get formal offices in Los
not saying for sure it’s going to be NCAA basketball
and not collegiate rugby," he said of e-sports.
"There’s signs that we can become ‘like
basketball,’ and that’s encouraging."