College esports have been around a lot longer than many might think.
In the past year, colleges have begun awarding scholarships to esports players (and we profiled a student a few weeks ago who is going to teach a college esports class), but its roots go back a little farther.
The Collegiate Starleague has been around since 2009, rising constantly to the point that more than 800 teams are playing five titles this season, which is split into two and lasts almost the entire school year.
A few other organizations — including Riot Games and Blizzard Entertainment — have dabbled in the college esports scene, but the CSL was in many ways the pioneering force for college esports. I had the chance to interview CEO Duran Parsi about his role in growing the CSL, the rise of collegiate esports and what lies ahead:
Vince Nairn: First of all, you’ve been the CEO of the Collegiate Star League since 2009. What’s it like just to see the rise of esports in the past six/seven years, and specifically in the past two or three? Likewise, how have you gone about growing the CSL and accommodating the changing environment of the industry?
Duran Parsi: It’s pretty awesome to see esports grow. I’ve been involved in the industry since 2004, and I’ve played StarCraft since it came out in 1998. So to see the old school WCG events to TI5, my mind is blown. When I started running tournaments and events, including CSL, it wasn’t something I really thought “This is going to be a career.” It was more “I enjoy doing this.” I still enjoy it just as much, but the landscape has made it possible for me to make a career out of it.
In that respect, I couldn’t be happier. In terms of changing, I think CSL has grown as the industry has grown, but collegiate eSports is still pretty far behind. Hopefully, I’ve put CSL in a good position to be ready to take the leap when the time comes. I’m working hard to make it happen sooner rather than later; it’s my dream to have CSL be a real career for people.
VN: How has the CSL been able to grow to its current size? At what point did you first start to see a spike in interest?
DP: CSL has almost doubled in terms of the number of competing teams every single year since we started in 2009, so I guess the spark was immediate. We grew from 25 to 54 to 73 to 140 and so on. This season, over 850 teams are competing. It wasn’t until 2013-2014 that game developers started getting involved, with Riot starting the (North American Collegiate Championship) and Blizzard buying and funding TeSPA. I guess that was a pretty landmark year.
VN: I’ve seen the CSL referenced as sort of “the NCAA of esports.” Do you have any relationship with the actual NCAA? Do you see the NCAA ever trying to get involved in esports?
DP: We don’t have any relationship with the NCAA. I think they might get involved (in esports). I do feel like the NCAA has a lot of issues to sort out internally and with its schools and athletes though, so I don’t really foresee it happening any time soon. I don’t really think they need to get involved. My goal is to have CSL be the place to go, as the only really independent body in collegiate esports.
We’re not tied to game developers. We’re open to hosting events for any game at any time, and I think that flexibility puts us in a great position to be as neutral of a body as possible, which is important as the industry grows.
VN: What are the most important issues — both challenges and potential triumphs — facing collegiate esports and the CSL in the next year?
DP: There’s a lot of interest in the collegiate space right now. It’s a buzzword. I talk to a lot of really big companies who say “This is going to be the next big thing!” The biggest issue though, is translating that interest into a commitment to spend money.
We’re a small company and we rely almost exclusively on sponsor support to operate, so in order to really take the next step in our growth, we need more money, and to get more money, some of these big companies who are interested need to step up to the plate and commit financially. That step has been the most difficult. Hopefully this year we can turn some heads, though.
VN: I know that Riot Games recently ruled against NACC participants competing in any other outside competitions. What kind of effects — however big or small they may be — does that have on the CSL?
DP: 32 teams were affected (and had to make mid-season roster changes). To be honest, I don’t think it matters too much. 32 teams play in the NACC, and 500 teams play in CSL (for League of Legends only). We both offer something unique. Riot wants to be the premiere competition for collegiate LoL teams, which is fine. Only so many teams can play in NACC every year, and there’s infinitely more interest, more teams, and more players than there are NACC spots. CSL will always have a place in the ecosystem, and I think we offer an awesome training/proving grounds for teams who have competitive aspirations.
If you want to compete in the NACC, getting training and practice by competing in CSL is a great way to do that. Or, if you just want to play casually, we offer casual leagues too. So basically, I see Riot’s NACC and what we do with CSL to be complementary more than anything.
VN: How did you decide on the games for which you run leagues, and does that change? If, for instance, a new esport would emerge, would you consider adding it? What would that deliberation process look like?
DP: We basically go with the flow. (StarCraft II) will always have a special place in our hearts because we started with Brood War. In terms of new games, it depends. We take recommendations from players, we take developer/publisher input, but most importantly, it’s mostly a guess of, “What is the next big game going to be and how can we build a community for it?” We usually host a few beta tournaments before incorporating the game into our full league. We do this to build an admin base, gauge interest, and start establishing a community. There’s a pretty big development cost to get new games up and running on our platform, so that’s also a deliberation that has to happen internally.