Learfield IMG College Is Looking to Clean Up College Esports

Learfield IMG College, the dominant force in college sports licensing and media rights, is partnering with video game publisher Electronic Arts to launch what they say will be the largest intercollegiate esports league in the country.

Level Next will launch this fall with a nationwide tournament to crown the best collegiate Madden gamers. Built to accommodate more than 2,500 schools, the league will leverage EA’s gaming expertise with the intellectual property and multimedia rights amassed by Learfield IMG College, making it the first college esports league to feature official logos and mascots in a broad capacity.

Financially, Level Next will provide Learfield IMG College and its schools with a new opportunity to engage corporate partners and fans, especially the coveted younger ones. That added revenue, no matter how small, will help during a time when many sports are halted due to COVID-19.

“I might be overly optimistic, but I do think this is going to be one of the biggest things to happen in college sports in quite a while,” said Cole Gahagan, who took over as CEO and president of Learfield IMG College in April.

Collegiate esports is a fractured landscape, with universities, conferences and publishers largely left to their own devices. Some schools, like the University of Utah, have launched entire esports departments with “varsity” teams and scholarships. Others have let undergraduate gaming clubs handle their involvement.

Publishers likewise typically run their own college outreach. Riot Games, for example, has an established collegiate League of Legends ecosystem with more than 461 participating colleges, many of which have dedicated faculty members and coaches, but its broadcasts don’t use official school branding.

EA has been looking to crack college esports for years, according to Todd Sitrin, who runs the company’s Competitive Gaming Entertainment division. Sitrin said his team tried different approaches, but couldn’t find a structure that would scale nationally.

“When we looked at the landscape, we felt that while others had tried, nobody had been successful,” Sitrin said. “The biggest issue was that universities across the country are locked into a complex web of alliances and relationships. That was the biggest barrier. And when we started talking to Learfield IMG College, we realized that they had already circumvented all that.”

To show how the Plano, Tex.-based Learfield IMG College is approaching Level Next, Gahagan compared esports to a traditional NCAA-sponsored sport like baseball. “Here locally, [Southern Methodist University] doesn’t have a baseball team,” he said. “If SMU just suddenly decided, okay, we’re going to start competing in baseball, there’s a national intercollegiate baseball ecosystem that has been in place for decades that they could immediately tap into. That doesn’t really exist in esports.”

Level Next doesn’t plan to be the NCAA of collegiate esports, so it won’t do governance or oversight. The aim is to be a competition platform for pre-existing campus esports organizations. The prize pool for this inaugural season is $150,000, which is being financed by Learfield IMG College.

Matches will stream on Twitch and through the

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On Recruiting Trail, Boston College Continues to Clean Up in Massachusetts

Yesterday, it was another Bay State recruiting win for Boston College as local wide receiver Ismael Zamor pledged to the Eagles. The Everett HS product is one of growing number of examples of Jeff Hafley and his staff setting a new foundation to dominate recruiting in Massachusetts. 

In year’s past, BC has been active locally. But the story was always the same. If the recruit was big enough to go nationally, the Eagles would more often than not lose that recruit to those powerhouse schools. This situation got worse when former defensive coordinator Don Brown left to go to Michigan. The Wolverines basically got first dibs on anyone in the area, and took players like Zak Zinter, Kalel Mullings and Mike Sainristill to the Big House. Even Michigan recruiting analysts bragged that the Wolverines owned Massachusetts. And it was hard to argue with that, Brown dominated the area. 

But the mood is shifting in local recruiting. Players like Matt Ragan and Ismael Zamor have all said the new coaching staff was part of the reason they committed to the Eagles. In fact in the past three months, BC has landed six local recruits from Massachusetts. Four of them had offers from the Wolverines. Linebacker Casey Phinney decommitted from Michigan when the local team made a push for him, instead choosing to play for Hafley. Tony Muse, from Lawrence Academy, chose to walk on at BC, even while holding an offer from the Wolverines. And a trio of Catholic Memorial ’23 recruits, two of which had Michigan offers, have already verballed to the Eagles. 

Since taking over the Eagles, there has only been one local recruit (TJ Guy) that Michigan stole that BC really wanted. The others the school didn’t push very hard for, or were not interested in. Tyler Martin never had a BC offer. Louis Hanson, they never made a huge push for, and were looking elsewhere at the position. 

The excitement that Jeff Hafley has created for his program is catching on locally. He is an engaging coach, that is producing a positive culture which is attractive to recruits. On top of that, he has surrounded himself with assistants who are connecting with these kids, and helping to support Hafley’s bigger picture. And the results on the field (minus last weekend), have only helped magnify his message. 

There are still going to be battles for local recruits. ’21 offensive lineman Drew Kendall’s destination is still shrouded in mystery, and there are some really big names coming in ’22 & ’23. But the stranglehold that Don Brown had on the area is gone. Michigan will not be raiding Massachusetts whenever they please. Boston College is going to not only be in on all of these recruits, they are going to win a lion’s share of the local recruits. Hafley’s message has resonated, and he is now dictating the terms in the area.

Former head coach Steve Addazio always talked about building a wall around Massachusetts. He never did,

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