breaking news

Air Guard F-16s to fly over Springfield this morning

E-sports' old college try


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 business.

With 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.

The 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.

But 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.

"College 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."

Large 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.

Parsi's firm — the top organizer of college e-sports by participants — remains unprofitable.

The 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 California universities.

By 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 credibility.

The 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.

Keeping 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.

"We want to be the de facto provider for collegiate e-sports," said Wim Stocks, WorldGaming's chief executive.

But 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.

"Star personalities is the No. 1 issue we face," Parsi said.

No stars, no fans. No fans, no sponsors.

Parsi 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.

Promotion 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.

For 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.

Parsi insists emerging games continually will fill gaps. The harder part, he says, is convincing school administrators to get on board.

Robert 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 e-sports.

Schools' 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.

UC 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.

Riot 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.

"'League of Legends' is a sport, and it needs all these structures around of it," said Michael Sherman, Riot Games' college e-sports lead.

School 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 channels.

As 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 Angeles.

"I'm 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."


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Sports

VIDEO: Luis Castillo throws six shutout innings against Cubs
VIDEO: Luis Castillo throws six shutout innings against Cubs

Reds rookie starter Luis Castillo has been one of the bright spots of the rotation. Castillo went six shutout innings against the defending champs on Tuesday night, allowing two hits and striking out seven. It lowered his season ERA to 3.39. Castillo’s thrown 66 1/3 innings across 11 starts this season, averaging 97 mph on his fastball. He hasn&rsquo...
Coaching carousel shakes up Group of 5 pecking order
Coaching carousel shakes up Group of 5 pecking order

The coaching carousel could have an impact on which teams from outside the five major conferences have the most success this season.   Western Michigan of the Mid-American Conference had an undefeated regular season in 2016, while Houston won the American Athletic Conference and upset Florida State in the Peach Bowl two years ago. Both teams...
With Didi's emojis, Clown face, Squid join Babe & Boss
With Didi's emojis, Clown face, Squid join Babe & Boss

A franchise known for the Babe, the Boss and the Iron Horse has a new set of nicknames.  Clown face is in left, Bow and arrow competes for time in center and Male judge is stationed in right.  These monikers are all bestowed by the New York Yankees' Didi Gregorius. After wins, the shortstop tweets highlights and praise using emojis for teammates...
You don't have to be paranoid to win at football. Just look at Navy
You don't have to be paranoid to win at football. Just look at Navy

This summer — like most recent summers — has birthed new restrictions in the coverage of our most secretive communal pastime: college football. There's LSU, which announced it would close all preseason practices to the media. And Notre Dame, which announced new rules on what sort of practice details could be revealed, and when, and at what...
NFL's 1st female scout details groundbreaking path in book
NFL's 1st female scout details groundbreaking path in book

Connie Carberg was incredibly antsy, barely able to contain her excitement a few moments before picking up the phone and making one of the most important calls in New York Jets history.  The team was on the clock in the second round of the 1979 NFL draft, and she had just received confirmation of the choice from the front office. An ecstatic Carberg...
More Stories