Could Esports be going back to school?


Will Electronic Arts ('EA') cash in on the rise of Esports by bringing back their College American Football game, NCAA Football? It's certainly a possibility. However, such a game would likely increase the pressure on the NCAA, the body that regulates North American college sport, to allow college athletes to be compensated.

Whilst the global games market grew by an impressive 10% in 2018, generating almost $135 billion, Esports popularity surged even faster with the market growing by over 26%. It is expected this year that Esports revenues will reach over $1 billion for the first time.

EA also produce the sports video games FIFA (Football) and Madden NFL (American Football), so are at the vanguard of this growth. They reported earlier this month in their FY 19 Financial results that over 45 million unique players engaged in FIFA 19 and FIFA 18 in FY19. This follows EA reporting last year that 'viewers' of competitive FIFA Esport had increased year-on-year by 80%. FIFA's American cousin, Madden NFL, is also thriving. The NFL Madden 19 Championship Series had a prize pool worth over $700,000 and its climax, the Madden NFL 19 Superbowl, had a 605% increase in viewership.

With these astronomic numbers, perhaps it is no wonder there are rumours that EA will now turn their attention back to the American College sports market, which Bloomberg estimated to be worth $13 billion in 2017.  Although EA published a game based on College basketball from 1998 to 2009, NCAA Football was far more popular and ran until 2013 when it was discontinued, due to licensing issues. However, with ten licensed College teams set to appear in Madden NFL 20, it appears these issues may have been resolved paving the way for EA to capitalize on the rise of Esports with the return of NCAA Football.

NCAA Football 14 sold roughly 2 million units generating revenue of $80 million; given the rise in Esports popularity, a new version of the game is likely to generate a considerable amount more. Yet, the College American Football athletes, whom the game would feature heavily, would see very little of this. This is because the NCAA does not allow College athletes to either be paid or to profit from their name, image or likeness. A Federal Court ruled earlier this month in Alston v. NCAA that the NCAA can no longer limit the scholarships Colleges offer student athletes, meaning they can offer students items 'related to the pursuit of academic studies'. However, College athletes are still prohibited from receiving a salary or exploiting their personal brand.

There is a potential blueprint for compensating College athletes for using their likenesses in games. One of the reasons the NCAA did not renew is license with EA for NCAA Football in 2013 were lawsuits brought by former College basketball player Ed O’Bannon and College quarterback Sam Keller against the NCAA and EA for misuse of athletes' likenesses. This resulted in a $60 million settlement which was distributed to the College athletes.  However, although a positive development, these lawsuits do not mean College athletes would automatically be compensated fairly for the use of their likenesses in a new game.

A report by Senator Christopher Murphy released in March of this year found that College sports programmes collected $14 billion in 2018 but only 12% of this went towards athletes' scholarships. Meanwhile, the Colleges, coaches, broadcasters, apparel companies and other sponsor brands are all making huge profits from the popularity of College sports. As Senator Murphy stated in his report, "Everybody is getting rich off an incredibly profitable industry except for the athletes". And EA could be next company to cash in.

However, bi-partisan support for College athletes to be paid is growing across the American political spectrum. Many professional and ex-professional athletes, such as ex-NBA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, are also championing the College athletes' cause. With the movement for College athletes to be paid increasingly gathering momentum, a return of NCAA Football depicting these College athletes will back the NCAA further into a corner on the issue. It seems to only be a matter of a time before College athletes are compensated for their labour.

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