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E-sports’ old college try

Duran Parsi headed to Pepperdine’s law school three years ago with a mission: By the end, he’d either practice law or commit to his fledgling e-sports business.

With graduation near, Parsi might need to grant himself an extension. Collegiate Star League, the 30-person e-sports operation run from his apartment, has essentially become the NCAA for video games.

The company organized tournaments that 30,000 college students in the U.S. and Canada participated in this school year. Sponsorship sales tripled from last school year, and enough cash remained for Parsi, 29, to live off his business instead of student loans.

But amateur e-sports trails the professional level in fervor. Parsi doesn’t know whether the college sports matches he organizes will rival the profits and appeal of college basketball and football or grow into niche money-suckers such as rugby and field hockey. The company that makes the leading game “League of Legends” expects to land in between, matching the small, but loud fandoms of college baseball.

“College e-sports is a buzzword right now, but there’s a big misconception about how big college e-sports is,” Parsi said. “We have a lot of players, but the audience is far behind.”

Large audiences deliver broadcasting and advertising deals that turn March Madness and bowl games into business bonanzas. But eight livestreams this year of Big Ten Conference e-sports matches drew zero revenue for the league and a combined 2.1 million viewers, or less than a single postseason college basketball game can draw with its rich history and bracket-induced popularity.

Parsi’s firm — the top organizer of college e-sports by participants — remains unprofitable.

The venture started in college when University of California at San Diego roommates pointed Parsi to the tech club’s tournament for the intragalactic alien battle game “StarCraft.” Parsi, figuring an easy gold, fell to bronze and exited surprised that 60 people showed. Inspired by classmates’ skills, he arranged a team and launched it into competition against other California universities.

By the time he earned a master’s degree in international relations from George Washington University, Parsi’s little league had ballooned into a nationwide spectacle. Collegiate Star League started featuring several games in addition to “StarCraft.” Landing the perennial contract to run the technology and logistics behind Riot Games’ university competition for “League of Legends” boosted the company’s credibility.

The league introduced multiple divisions of play, separating schools by skill level, with separate champions crowned in each game for each division. Prizes escalated from mice and keyboards in 2012 to $200,000 this year. Because NCAA rules don’t apply to e-sports, cash prizes are fair game. But prizes might be phased out as more schools offer scholarships, bringing e-sports in line with the norms of traditional college athletics.

Keeping pace with player interest required…

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