College Gamers Get Rivalries, Scholarships in Big Ten TV Deal

  • Big Ten Network and Riot Games are starting an esports league
  • Each team member will get a $5,000 academic scholarship

Fans cheer on a team during the League of Legends World Championship at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, on Oct. 29, 2016.

Photographer: David Williams/Bloomberg

Competitive video gaming, already insanely popular on college campuses, is getting a boost from the Big Ten’s cable channel.

Together with Riot Games, the Big Ten Network is creating a two-month League of Legends league. The business partnership suggests a model for universities looking to capitalize on the growing interest in organized esports, projected by Newzoo to be a $1.1 billion industry by 2019. The Pac-12 has also said its networks are also looking into broadcasting esports competitions.

For the network, which is owned by the Big Ten Conference and 21st Century Fox, the goal is to attract new viewers and connect them to the Big Ten brand. "This is not the person going to football games every Saturday," said Michael Sherman, who runs Riot’s League of Legends collegiate division.

The Big Ten Network tested the growing market for esports with an invitational between Ohio State and Michigan State last April and decided a bigger investment was warranted. 

"What struck me was the intensity of how fans watch esports, as opposed to being on their phones, checking other things," said Erin Harvego, BTN’s Vice President of Marketing. Unlike fans at football or basketball games, "they’re watching every second because they want to play the game better, they want to improve their own games."

While both sides declined to provide financial terms of the one-year licensing agreement, Sherman said that Riot will produce a lot of the content and operate the league.

A dozen of the 14 schools in the Big Ten, including Michigan, Ohio State, and Rutgers, will participate in the first BTN League of Legends season, which starts this month. The six-person teams are organized as student clubs, and players won’t travel -- games are hosted online. Riot and Scholarship America will provide each player a $5,000 academic scholarship.

The esports matches will stream on BTN’s digital arm, BTN2GO, as well as Riot’s online network. The March 27 championship will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network’s cable channel, and the winner will advance to the League of Legends College Championship.

The network plans to hold the first season without trying to generate money, focusing more on attracting different viewers with new content. They won’t, for example, sell ads for the digital broadcasts, and they won’t sell merchandise. Those things, Harvego said, could come in time.

As for Riot, the deal may accelerate conversations they’re already having with other schools and conferences. "We really do hope this is the start of opening the floodgates," Sherman said.

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