Next year’s crop of Pac-12 college athletes will include officially-sanctioned gamers for the first time ever.
In an end-of-year announcement, the Pac-12 Conference said on Tuesday that it will be the first college athletic conference to host and televise eSports competitions during the 2016-2017 school year. Citing a “growing interest amongst Pac-12 students in competitive video gaming,” conference officials approved a plan to sanction eSports teams from each Pac-12 university to compete next year in head-to-head match-ups as well as a tournament with a conference championship at stake.
The conference plans to broadcast competitions on the Pac-12 Network, the conference’s cable and satellite TV network. The conference’s announcement stated that the nascent interest in eSports is related to various academic pursuits, including “computer science, visual and cinematic arts, engineering and others.”
“eSports is a natural fit for many of our universities located in the technology and media hubs of the country,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement. Conference officials said they have not yet decided on which specific video game will be used as the basis of the competitions, or the event format, but those decisions will come soon.
A number of U.S. colleges and universities already have unofficial eSports teams that participate in collegiate competitions, including the Heroes of the Dorm competition, which the Pac-12’s own Arizona State University won this year.
The growth in popularity of eSports has been reflected in an increase in traditional media coverage, and televised competitions on the Pac-12 Network is just the latest example. ESPN, Disney’s (DIS) flagship sports network, has broadcast the Heroes of the Dorm competition on its ESPNU and ESPN2 networks, while also launching an eSports-specific vertical on ESPN.com. Meanwhile, Turner Broadcasting is launching an eSports league this year that will soon include regular televised coverage on its TBS network on Friday evenings.