When Mark Deppe, the acting director for University of California, Irvine's esports program, thinks of esports, he doesn't think of traditional sports games like NBA 2K.
It may sound ironic, but compared to high-profile competition games like Overwatch and League of Legends, Take-Two Interactive's basketball-themed series doesn't stack up, Deppe told CNBC.
"I'm a little less bullish on the NBA games just because, one, the viewership's not there right now. It's probably the 50th or 60th most-watched esport," Deppe told "Mad Money" host Jim Cramer. "And ... it has to be a balanced game, a fair game going into it, so they actually take out the actual players and their faces and their names, and so you're essentially playing with kind of nameless avatars."
Deppe, whom Cramer dubbed "chief gaming officer," helped develop UCI's esports program in 2015. The move made UCI the first public university to offer an official program for esports.
UCI was also one of the first schools to begin a scholarship program around esports, offering top gamers $5,610 and $2,500 to join its League of Legends and Overwatch teams, respectively.
For teams, the program provides a personal trainer, team psychologist and a host of team-building activities that help gamers socialize outside of virtual realms, Deppe said.
The "self-funded" program draws on support from sponsors like Logitech, which provides high-end gear for the school's esports arena, Deppe told Cramer. The school also charges non-team gamers for their time in the arena.
And Deppe's work is paying off: UCI's Overwatch team is playing UC San Diego for the national title in two weeks with 16 wins and no losses under its belt.
But the esports chief flagged one obstacle for big-name organizations like the NCAA that are interested in entering the space.
"One thing that's really unique about esports is that the games are owned by companies and that's intellectual property that would have to be involved," Deppe said. "The way I see it unfolding now is these game companies are choosing to own and operate their own collegiate leagues and I'm very comfortable with that."
As top gaming companies like Activision-Blizzard race to develop the next major multi-played competition games, Deppe said he could see even bigger players like Amazon entering the industry.
"I'm very bullish on it," Deppe said. "I think the internet has changed every industry on the planet and esports is the next evolution in competition. You play against who you want regardless of age, gender, where they live, and you play against people your ability level. I think that's really powerful. You don't have referees messing up your game for you. All the rules are built into the game, so I think our expectations are changing with the internet and I think esports are going to meet those expectations."