March 3, 2023
Competitive video gaming, known as esports, does not count as athletics for the purposes of the federal antidiscrimination law Title IX, according to a February court decision that legal experts have labeled the first of its kind.
In a ruling last month, U.S. District Judge Carlos Mendoza wrote that esports programs at a private nonprofit college, the Florida Institute of Technology, do not offer “genuine participation opportunities under Title IX,” which bans sex-based discrimination in federally funded schools. Colleges must ensure equality between men’s and women’s athletics to meet their Title IX obligations.
Florida Institute of Technology, or FIT, had been sued by six members of its varsity men’s rowing program in October, alleging the institution’s decision to shift the team to the club level violated Title IX and that men were underrepresented as athletes compared to the institution’s student body. But FIT argued it was near parity when esport participants were taken into account.
Esports proliferated at colleges over the last half-decade. Institutions of all types have set up scholarships, started academic programs and sometimes constructed mammoth arenas to try to lay a stake in what is valued as a $1.2 billion-plus industry globally.
Even the COVID-19 health crisis did not significantly derail esports’ progress, as some colleges found during lockdowns they could take advantage of online gaming to attract applicants.
Questions about regulating esports have arisen, however. The National Association of Collegiate eSports, which began in 2016, serves as an NCAA counterpart. But the esports association is not nearly as expansive or well-resourced and is still establishing across-the-board rules.
Not every esports program chooses to affiliate with the association, either.
Title IX-related concerns have also emerged. Colleges host their esports programs in different departments — sometimes in student affairs offices, but often athletics, sparking questions about whether they’re subject to the same regulatory requirements as traditional sports.
The court decision Feb. 17 marks the first time a ruling has come down on the issue of Title IX and college esports.