The NCAA announced on Thursday it had reached out to Chicago-based Intersport, a sports and entertainment marketing firm, to further explore the collegiate esports landscape. The mission falls squarely into the hands of Kurt Melcher, Intersport's executive director of esports.
Before joining Intersport, Melcher founded Robert Morris University's collegiate esports program -- a first in the United States. ESPN spoke to Melcher regarding his task with the NCAA and his input following his involvement with RMU's program.
ESPN.com: How did Intersport approach its pitch to the NCAA?
Melcher: In August, the NCAA issued an RFP [request for proposal] for an exploration into what's happening into collegiate esports. I think they recognized the phenomenon as a grass-roots level, and it's increased to somewhere [to] over 475 programs. They're seeing the formalization process, whether it is through scholarships or schools providing space. Support for programs is increasing.
As a robust consulting arm to it, we approached that by saying: the best way to look at it is to give the best amount of information of what's happening and talking to all the stakeholders within, and providing that report back. When I'm saying stakeholders, it's not just saying schools as the membership to the NCAA, because there is a disconnect between programs and student organizations to schools. Including membership, but then also talking to students and student leaders -- "What has your path been like? What are the struggles you're facing? How do you feel about the school, and what kind of support you're receiving?"
So it's really bringing in schools, student leadership, publishers and [taking] a deep dive. Assimilating all that information and data and bringing that back in a concise report back to the NCAA to help them know what's happening and understand it.
ESPN.com: So the NCAA is seeking information from the [collegiate] esports landscape. They have been looking at it for a while, but what do you think they are hoping from this process?
Melcher: They want to know better. I give them credit for knowing what they don't know and doing the due diligence to find out what is happening. Is it something that would serve the membership by becoming involved? They understand also that there are major hurdles and it is not similar to traditional sports. Taking the time in learning as much as possible is a good first step. What they want to do is unknown. I don't think they know what they will be doing, maybe nothing in the end of the day. Once the information and datasets come back, that's TBA.
ESPN.com: Would it be too early to talk about what they have to do in order to incorporate collegiate esports, especially as a varsity sport?
Melcher: Yeah. Certainly, they wouldn't do the due process if that wasn't something they wouldn't somewhat consider, as they see schools are formalizing in athletics. But we are seeing that 30 percent of formalized programs are in student services, 30 percent are in athletics, 20 percent are in an academic house setting where there is game design or computer design. I think that is part of the process, seeing if this is a space that they should become involved in, and how, if possible.
ESPN.com: Any thoughts about what they should do at the moment?
Melcher: It's impossible to say right now. The commitment to understanding and learning, in my opinion right now, is nebulous, because I really want to talk to every school that we have identified, to every program, and gather as much information, because I'm just one of those people within the 500 schools. Learning what their opinions are and what their insight is is really important, so you have a mass scale, a better idea of what the entity college esports wants and what is best for it.
ESPN.com: Considering your position in this whole landscape [initially founding the Robert Morris University program, which was the first and also was involved with current LCS players -- Adrian Ma, for example], what is your hope in this process?
Melcher: The current NCAA structure, as we know, in some ways fits and in some ways does not fit collegiate esports as it stands right now. On both sides, the NCAA wanting to learn everything they can about collegiate esports, what is happening at schools and how administrators and students feel about it. And on the other side, what do students and administrations feel about esports and formalizing it potentially at that kind of level? Is there some kind of disconnect? Is there a possible path for it? Is it possible?
I started the Robert Morris program 100 percent because I recognized that there is a real ability and talent and skill in high-level League play, and I'm always going to be an advocate for the student-athlete. If there are ways that can enhance the student-athlete esports experience on campuses, then that is something I want to try to look at and figure out if there is a way that can enhance that.
If all this data comes to an end and it says "this wouldn't be the best," then that is not my decision, that is the NCAA's decision. I think they're looking to enhance and help their membership -- or schools -- which, in the end, want to help their student-athletes.
ESPN.com: Talking about student-athletes and some of the problems that can emerge -- for example, recently there was a sportsman on YouTube that got his NCAA license suspended [Donald De La Haye, UCF kicker]. You were on the side that the NCAA shouldn't get involved into it. What would change your mind on that?
Melcher: Regarding [De La Haye], who had a scholarship and was monetizing his YouTube channel, that is something we would look at in the current collegiate esports landscape and find out what percentage of formalized programs or streamers are there that, outside of the program, are monetizing their stream, and what would that take away from all collegiate esports athletes. Again, I am 100 percent focused on [the fact that] I want to make collegiate esports better. That means making it better for the players. That's the reason I started the program at Robert Morris University, just to elevate what's happening at college campuses.
I wouldn't say, in the past, I have been against NCAA involvement. I say that it's always about what could be the best situation for student esports athletes. As we see esports grow on campuses right now, we're seeing esports getting pushed into different directions, where programs are sort of housed under student services, which is great because those student-athletes there are having some services and some funding. But it is going to be different then; the programs under student services are going to have different goals than the ones in athletics.
Maybe they all belong to student services, maybe it all belongs in athletics or maybe it all belongs to athletics. Or maybe the way that it is fragmented now is the natural and right path. That's part of what we are going to dig in and ascertain through this research process.
ESPN.com: Do you have anything to add regarding the NCAA and esports?
Melcher: Yes. Most people will have questions around a couple of major topics surrounding collegiate esports. How does it work around amateurism, where the mindset is. Esports professionals are so young. Generally, 17 to 21 are the prime years. That's a consideration.
Like you've mentioned, Adrian Ma, Zig or [Jordan "AmazinglyShady" Robison]. All had come out of the [RMU] program early prior to graduating. That is definitely something that we are going to take a deep look at, and it is a consideration, same as prizing. Right now, in esports, generally a high-level team can go to attend some LANs. Maybe it's $500 [in a prize pool], but that definitely would be an event that generally the NCAA structure does not allow. That is something that has to be considered.
There is also the schedule and practice time, which the NCAA has currently, in traditional athletics, set their standards. There is also Title IX. Programs generally, if they are part of a conference school, are blocking a thin line as far as Title IX are handed out or issued athletic scholarships, so that's another consideration.
I don't have any answers to those, but that is something in the main topic points, overall, that we are going to try to learn as much as we can about, and get the best information.