You are here

SCAC joins expanding list of conferences, schools to plug into esports trend

The 2018 League of Legends Peach Belt Conference tournament, featured in the Spring 2018 issue of Champion magazine, was the first official esports championship for NCAA schools. NCAA Photos archive

As Dwayne Hanberry watched from a back row of the Peach Belt Conference’s inaugural esports championship a year ago, the commissioner of Division III’s Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference spotted something that cast a lasting impression. 

He saw players wearing jerseys with their gamer nicknames on the backs. They were introduced under spotlights, their play narrated by broadcasters on an online stream. “They’ve given these kids a special experience,” Hanberry said of the Peach Belt that day, which Champion detailed in its feature “Game On” in the Spring 2018 issue

One year later, Hanberry did the same on Schreiner’s campus April 6-7, when six members of the SCAC gathered for its first conference esports championship, joining the Landmark Conference as the first two Division III leagues to host official esports events. There were medals made for the champions of each game. Esports gear with the SCAC logo was available for purchase. And, naturally, there was a conference trophy for the champion. It was the same experience shared by SCAC athletes who won cross country, soccer, basketball — any other conference crown. 

It was just one sign of esports’ explosive growth on college campuses in the past year. As college sports leaders continue to discuss the role the NCAA should play in collegiate esports and how it can navigate concerns — including those raised over violence and depictions of women in the content — the number of colleges, universities and conferences getting involved has ballooned. The number of schools that have joined the National Association of Collegiate Esports, the governing body for college esports since 2016, nearly doubled in the past year to more than 125 members. More than 90 NCAA member schools now sponsor it as a varsity sport. 

And while the Division II Peach Belt Conference held the first official conference championship among NCAA schools in 2018, more than 10 conferences will hold some type of esports competition in 2018-19. 

The reason for that growth is often attributed to esports’ ability to engage the current student body, attract new students and present a cutting-edge image. For some liberal arts schools, esports can provide an anchor to new technological programs and help attract a different type of student than the school traditionally lures. With that development potential, student-life departments, in addition to athletics departments, have become involved in starting the programs on many campuses, seeing esports as part of their school’s broader growth strategy. 

That was the case in the SCAC. The conference’s presidents pushed for its esports tournament, organized in a partnership with each school’s student-life department. Six schools competed in the inaugural championship, holding tournaments in four games: League of Legends, Overwatch, Fortnite and Smash Bros. Ultimate. The SCAC soon may have more company. Hanberry said two more schools in the conference could join its championship event next year, and a half-dozen other Division III commissioners have inquired about it after fielding interest in esports from their own presidents. 

As Hanberry prepared to host his conference’s first championship, he looked back to his experience at the Peach Belt tournament a year earlier to point to a bigger motivation for the SCAC’s involvement. “It was really neat to see those kids who don’t get a chance to compete and put on a school uniform,” Hanberry said. “This was their chance to get that experience.” 

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.