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Title IX compliance a priority for varsity esports programs

Boise State Overwatch team captain Maggie Borland, right, convenes with Broncos esports director Chris Haskell, left, and teammates during a match at DreamHack Denver on Friday. Provided by Boise State

"How many women are there on the team roster?"

Mark Deppe was working to build the first varsity esports program at a public college when his presentation audience, a group of faculty members at University of California-Irvine raised the issue.

"It was always an awkward question because we knew the answer was, 'No women as of now,'" Deppe, the acting director of UCI Esports, said.

Magda El Zarki, a professor at UCI's school of information and computer science, suggested an inclusion task force. The idea stuck with Deppe. Soon enough, the esports table added two more seats for Constance Steinkueler, a professor specializing in game-based learning, and Kirsten Quanbeck, an associate chancellor and Title IX officer.

Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 bars gender discrimination in all educational institutions that receive federal funding. For colleges and universities, the federal law covers all aspects of campus life, but sports fans often associate it with collegiate athletics and the NCAA, whose board of governors will gather to assess the esports landscape Tuesday at UCLA.

Architects of varsity esports like Deppe and Quanbeck are keeping a close eye on the meeting. If the NCAA decides to become involved in esports, the collegiate esports scene would witness a drastic change in content creation and amateur athlete status. Title IX compliance, however, would be absent from their list of concerns; many schools founded varsity programs with compliance to Title IX as a priority.

Abiding by Title IX started with equal opportunities to participate for everyone. When UCI's all-male varsity squads looked over their monitors, they saw the esports arena walls coated with a code of conduct. The message of welcoming students from all backgrounds and identities was neighbor to a zero-tolerance policy for toxic behavior.

"Collegiate esports, it has existed for more than three years. For many of our members, it's their first year, and it's a lot of learning."

Michael Brooks, National Association of Collegiate Esports executive director

Earlier this year, female students on the Orange County campus received various invitations to be part of the esports program, from flyers for a panel of women in gaming and esports to recruitment for supporting staff positions at the arena. UCI Esports also hosted high school students for its first girls' summer camp in the hopes of creating a pipeline for future talents; one of them might be UCI's League of Legends or Overwatch team captain in the future.

Boise State University, a fellow NCAA school and the new college on the esports block, already had a woman calling shots for it. Chris Haskell, Boise State's esports director, said he believes Overwatch player Maggie Borland is the first female esports team captain in first-person shooters outside of all-women's schools.

"Maggie is going to represent the team," Haskell said. "It just so happens she's female, and we are proud of that. That's ideally the place we all want to get to. We have a female player because she is dang good."

Borland led the team to its first LAN event win on Friday when Boise State narrowly edged out Colorado State University on the stage at DreamHack Denver. She is more than a token: Haskell confirmed that seven other female players are competing for Boise State on various levels.

At the announcement of its esports program in August, Boise State also joined the National Association of Collegiate Esports, the governing body over varsity esports programs of nearly 50 institutions. Michael Brooks, executive director of NACE, said the organization included gender equality in its constitution and bylaws while doing its best to spread information on Title IX.

"Title IX is a serious issue, and everyone thinks it changes the landscape in a good way," said Brooks, a former NAIA administrator. "Collegiate esports, it has existed for more than three years. For many of our members, it's their first year, and it's a lot of learning."

Stephens College, an all-women's college and NCAE's 31st member, stood out in the Title IX conversation because it is the only single-sex school to have a varsity scholarship esports program. But according to Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of Sports Management at Drexel University, Congress made exemptions for some private institutions and women's colleges when the bill was passed in 1972, so Title IX wouldn't compel schools like Stephens College to set up men's teams.

Staurowsky, the author of "College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA's Amateur Myth," said the chances of NCAA moving into esports territory are slim for several reasons. The NCAA has control over its main events such as the NCAA tournament and the College Football Playoff. Meanwhile in esports, it would have to co-pilot in with game developers like Riot Games and Blizzard because it doesn't own the intellectual properties of League of Legends or Overwatch; the same would go for any other titles and other developers. Additionally, the NCAA's stance against students profiting from content creation would pit it against the esports community.

In an email statement to ESPN, Christopher Radford, the associate director of public and media relations for the NCAA, said that the committee "will continue the conversation at their meeting later this month to understand the NCAA's potential role." Radford also said he doesn't have anything further to share about the upcoming meeting or esports in general at the moment.

Both Haskell and Brooks echoed Staurowsky's opinions as they expect NCAA to move on from collegiate esports for now, and agreed that the 3-year-old collegiate esports should follow the 45-year-old Title IX, with or without NCAA. They would do it on moral grounds instead of in fear of punishment. The U.S. Department of Education has never penalized a school for Title IX reasons, according to Staurowsky.

But how do you encourage women to participate in male-dominant esports programs? Deppe and Quanbeck saw more diversity in UCI's esports arena after an effort to create a safe space for female gamers. And Haskell said role models like Borland could inspire many more women to compete at high levels. Staurowsky said she wished she had a clearer answer, but incubator programs for girls and women interested in STEM fields provide ideas for esports programs to work off of.

"If we committed enough to empowering our students' performance," Saturowsky said, "we will not be giving them these messages for their life choices just because of their gender."