Can eSports Fill a Mid-Major Void on College Campuses?

Big East, others seem to think it makes good brand sense

This fall if you want to watch most—if not all—of your favorite mid-major schools compete in athletics, from football and soccer to volleyball and even fall baseball or softball, you are probably out of luck as most universities (not playing Power 5 football) have put sports on hold.

Sort of.

There is still a place in the coming weeks to see say, Georgetown University, the defending national soccer champion, play Villanova University, or maybe see local rivals St. John’s University and Seton Hall University square off on a pitch.

Only now, these games will be streaming on a cloud-based field or screen, in the form of a series of esports competitions, from titles like Rocket League, and Overwatch, to the more traditional sport-related games like FIFA.

On Thursday, the Big East Conference announced a three-year agreement with the five year-old Electronic Gaming Federation (EGF) that will enable all 11 member schools to compete in a year-long multi-game season for the first time as official EGF Collegiate (EGFC) league members.

EGFC is one of a handful of groups rallying gaming programs on college campuses, most tied to regional and seasonal one or two game tournaments. This step is a unique escalation of aggregating like-minded schools with similar athletic and academic disciplines in many games over an extended season with the goal of crowning national champions.

To date, EGFC is working with 32 schools from across the U.S., including the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, and the list continues to grow.

Broadcasts of all matches will be streamed on EGF’s 5 Twitch channels, the Big East’s YouTube channel and various institutional platforms.

“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.”

The aggregated power of an extended season with all member institutions involved is a really interesting blue print for brands who are looking to try and navigate the fluid scope of esports by engaging with known quantities that symbolize success, and the Big East certainly provides some of that stability.


“The displacement of most college sports for the fall has encouraged brands to look for alternatives to reach younger male audiences and to stay engaged with students and emerging alumni,” explains EGF CEO Eric Johnson. “That esports, in general, has seen a surge in sponsorship also bodes well for how well-educated brands have become in the space. We plan to marry that with a collegiate system that will follow models in traditional sports that all marketers have been extremely familiar with for decades.”

Johnson has the track record. He joined the company earlier this year after 18-plus years at ESPN where in the role of EVP, Global Advertising Revenue & Sales Operations, he directly led a 400-person team dedicated to growing a nearly $4 billion advertising business for all ESPN media platforms globally.

Now this is not the first attempt at rallying colleges together to see if the future of competition is in the gaming space.

The Collegiate Starleague has run multiple tournaments for several years, mostly tied to individual games and Riot Games has run intercollegiate League of Legends events (EGF will manage the Big East season-long competition under the new announcement) on and off with varying degrees of success as well.

There are also regional competitions with schools big and small (HBCU schools recently also announced a coalition for esports competition), all looking to make progress in what can be very unwieldy as programs are run from various places on campus ranging from campus activities to in some cases, scholarship based athletic programs.

It is the structure and framework for multiple games, think Olympics, that has been needed to create brand and media partner attraction, and Johnson believes that this is the first major step forward. A step which will in turn entice brands who have started forays into professional esports like AB InBev, Pepsi and Subway, to make a bigger transition into a collegiate space they have already invested in through traditional sports.

“If you are a brand looking for blue ocean in what has become a murky sea of esports, a clear path can be the college space since the audience and the players are already there,” said Chris Lencheski, CEO, Winning Streak Sports and professor at Columbia University who also sits on EGF’s board of directors. “It’s not the easiest of paths yet, but this concept the BIG EAST has embraced is easier to explain and has the structure that brands, and even media companies, like in a world that may seem haphazard from the outside.”

“Intercollegiate esports competition at the Division I level is relatively uncluttered for now, so it is a great opportunity for brands to get involved with the formation from the beginning. It is also focused directly on domestic audiences built on traditional collegiate rivalries,” Johnson adds.  “Also, we work directly with students, the academic and athletic departments, and student affairs–with a collective goal is to empower the esports teams with a keen focus on education and career pathing toward industry careers in the gaming industry. For instance, this past spring, we worked with Microsoft and Syracuse to provide students with a program to participate in shoutcasting and interviewing during our competition. And for brands already involved in the college marketplace? This represents new audiences that until recently have not had opportunities seen in traditional sports.”

So where does it go from here? The hiatus for college athletics will hopefully not last much longer, but the interest in esports as a viable property that can attract global—and co-ed—teams of students from various disciplines is intriguing to many.

The key? The partnership has to makes sense organizationally and the path to measurable ROI must be mapped out. Until now, much of what we have seen has lacked that structure.

Yes, the concept remains in its relative infancy, but that’s no excuse to take your eye off the ball and resort to slapping on your logo or living with misaligned messaging.

For brands, that’s some of the beauty of programs such as EGF’s. It combines a new platform with proven ways to hit marketing goals.

“Striking a long-term deal with the Big East and having 32 Division I schools committed to a 20-week season and post-season—with more schools to join in the Spring semester—starts to create a system that will model other traditional athletics competitions,” Johnson concludes. “At EGF, and obviously my background at ESPN, our goal is to take the best practices on how great brand value has been structured in college football and basketball and tailor that to the uniqueness of esports programs.”

It is a unique offering for sure; now we watch to see if brands are ready to play the games.