We have investigated the role of the NMDA glutamate receptor (NMDAR) in the genesis and regulation of structural plasticity during synaptogenesis in the visual layers of the rat superior colliculus (sSC). In this neuropil, three projections compete for synaptic space during development. By fluorescently labeling the projections of both eyes and imaging them with confocal microscopy, we can quantify the sprouting of the ipsilateral retinal projection that follows removal of a portion of the contralateral retinal and/or corticocollicular projection. Using these techniques we have studied the effects of NMDAR blockade under different levels of competition. NMDARs were chronically blocked from birth [postnatal day 0 (P0)] by suspending the competitive antagonist 2-amino-5-phosphonopentanoic acid in the slow release plastic Elvax, a slab of which was implanted over the sSC. Such treatment alone does not impair the normal segregation of the retinal projections. However, if sprouting of the ipsilateral projection is initiated with a small contralateral retinal lesion at P6, this sprouting can be further increased by blocking NMDARs from birth. Sprouting of the ipsilateral retinal projection is also induced by retinal lesions made at P10/P11, but NMDAR blockade does not augment the sprouting induced by this later lesion. However, when combined with simultaneous ablation of the ipsilateral visual cortex, P10/P11 lesions show increased sprouting after NMDAR blockade. These data indicate that P0 NMDAR blockade does not eliminate synaptic competition in the sSC. Instead, early elimination of NMDAR function appears to facilitate sprouting that is gated in a stepwise manner by the other visual afferents.