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