In early 2017 the Big Ten Network announced a partnership with Riot Games. Can you tell us what started that conversation, how it came to be and why the Big Ten Network chose League of Legends as the game of choice?
In the early part of 2016, students from the Penn State esports team contacted me because they were interested in putting on a League of Legends competition with other Big Ten schools and wanted to see if BTN wanted to be involved. Through my conversations with them, I was introduced to Riot and we agreed to do an exhibition matchup between two Big Ten schools at Pax East to test interest in the programming. The exhibition match went great and after having discussions with Riot over the summer, we decided to test a pilot season of League of Legends programming on the Big Ten Network.
What was the overall reception of the announcement among the other schools in the conference? Did all the schools participate in the inaugural year and if not, are they now participating?
I wasn’t sure what to expect when we decided to go forward with our esports programming. But in our inaugural year we had 12 of the 14 school participate in our pilot esports program which we thought was a tremendous representation. It’s very similar to any traditional sport, not all schools play all sports and the fact that we started out with 12 schools really gave us some momentum. This year all 14 schools agreed to participate.
You did not start in the gaming industry, correct? Can you share with us what the experience has been like working in the space?
Correct. I joke that my gaming expertise ended with Frogger. But even though I didn’t start in the gaming industry, I’ve become a huge fan of esports. It’s been fun for me to learn about this space and the programming has really resonated with our Big Ten fans.
Esports is often referred to as the wild west and collegiate esports even more so. What has it been like working with the various organizations? Are there universities that provide more support than others?
We’ve received tremendous support from our universities. This wasn’t a traditional athletic department venture. Because of this when we reached out to the schools, we said that we really wanted to learn more about esports and explore this space and see if this would be a good fit for both them and us. Fortunately, the schools were receptive to it. This is a perfect demonstration of the leadership and forward-thinking vision of our Big Ten schools.
I’m sure you saw the news about the PAC12 and the new formation of the PACG by its student organizations. What are you thoughts on this for the growth of collegiate esports?
I’m seeing a lot of interest across the board in collegiate esports – not just the Pac-12 students – and I think that’s a positive thing for the growth of esports at the college level. It’s clear there is a passionate fan base for collegiate esports.
With more colleges offering esports scholarships every year, what do you think needs to happen for other conferences and universities to follow the example that the Big Ten Network has set? I believe every institution has to do what’s best for them. Speaking for the Big Ten Network, we are really excited about the potential of esports programming as a way for us to connect with and broaden our audience. We are content providers at BTN and we believe collegiate esports is great content.
Esports pose a really unique opportunity for males and females to compete on the same team, do you foresee any troubles with NCAA and Title IV as esports continues to gain more mainstream attention?
Esports is unique and I was encouraged when the NCAA announced last fall that it was going to further explore the esports landscape. I’m really looking forward to seeing their findings.
Now that you are fully immersed in the gaming culture, do you have a favorite game to play or watch?
I am biased but I have to say League of Legends. It’s the one I know the best. I really admire the skill set and teamwork it takes to be a successful competitor in that game.
Congratulations on extending the partnership with Riot, what else are you excited about for esports and the BIG10 in 2018? Will we see any new titles in competition?
Riot has been a terrific partner and really helped BTN emerge as the leader in collegiate esports productions. As a matter of fact, we are hosting our second-annual BTN League of Legends Playoffs April 6-9 with the top eight teams in our league and of course I’m really looking forward to that. The esport landscape is always changing and evolving but our commitment to quality programming isn’t. We want to embrace all opportunities while working with smart, strategic partners.