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Mid-American Conference schools create new league for esports

Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher speaks to the media in Cleveland on March 12. (AP file photo)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Aiming to recruit and engage more competitive video gamers, a dozen schools in the Mid-American Conference are creating a standalone esports conference to offer structured competition without the extensive rules that govern intercollegiate athletics.

That means the teams can enlist not just amateur players but a type prohibited in traditional college sports: competitors who already turned pro or made money from gaming, sometimes as teenagers years before college.

“There’s boatloads of kids out there that want to do this — well, they’re doing it already,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “And so to have some level of organization that provides for regular competitive opportunities that are well-run, on a regular basis, we think will give our schools a leg up in terms of attracting these students to their campuses.”

The Big East, Mountain West, Peach Belt and Metro Atlantic Athletic conferences already have esports competitions in at least one game, and there are teams or student clubs of gamers at scores more schools.

The new Esports Collegiate Conference, announced Wednesday, plans to be open to schools outside the Mid-American Conference and operate separately from it, though some MAC staff will help facilitate it, Steinbrecher said.

Cosplayer fans watch competition between Philadelphia Fusion and London Spitfire during the Overwatch League Grand Finals at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 28, 2018. Most professional esports are devoid of female players at their highest levels, even though 45 percent of U.S. gamers are women or girls. Executives for titles like League of Legends and Overwatch say they are eager to add women to pro rosters, but many female gamers say they're discouraged from chasing such careers by toxic behavior and other barriers. (AP file photo)

Northern Michigan University in Marquette will inaugurate its program this fall as an NCAA Division II competitor.

Organizers are still deciding what to play when the MAC-affiliated conference begins official action this fall. They say the spring season will feature competitions in League of Legends and Overwatch, with the champions getting automatic bids to national postseason tournaments for those titles.

The aim was a framework that operates much like varsity sports, with a few key differences, such as the game publishers setting their own rules, said Phill Alexander, director of the varsity esports program at Miami University in Ohio.

Esports Collegiate’s founding schools considered it important to keep the new conference separate from athletics, Steinbrecher said. The NCAA’s decision last year not to govern esports wasn’t much of a factor in that, but other considerations were, including legal and regulatory issues and the culture around gaming, he said. Another clear issue: the male-dominated gender dynamic of esports, which could complicate compliance with Title IX rules.

Organizers from the founding schools also envision more opportunities to tie into academics, such as degree programs related to the gaming industry.

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