Robert Morris University Illinois offers competitive eSports scholarships to prospective students who excel at League of Legends. And the interest in gaming as a collegiate varsity sport is growing.
Fantasy leagues. Viewing parties. Championships that drew 27 million viewers in 2014. A chance to compete professionally.
This isn’t America’s pastime or the gridiron. This is League of Legends (LoL), an online, multi-player strategy game that is now making additional headlines as it enters a new level of notoriety–collegiate varsity sports.
Full disclosure–I am not a gamer. The last time I owned a video game system was before my Game Boy finally fried. I’ve also never personally been drawn to online gaming. Seeing that I used to spike controllers and joysticks when things wouldn’t go my way as a childhood gamer, I can imagine my technology budget would be rather hefty if I played today.
That said, I’m fascinated by those who have the dexterity, patience, and coordination to master games like LoL. I especially appreciate the opportunity it provides to a young man or woman who doesn’t fit the stereotypical “athletic” mold to flex his/her mind muscle on a grander stage. From reported calculations, it seems I may be among the few individuals not gaming.
Riot Games, the producers of LoL, project that there are upwards of 7.5 million people playing the game daily at any point in time. And with that many players, along with millions more viewers, as well as championship grand prizes that max out at $1,000,000, there’s a case to be made that this has grown beyond what some sports may dream.
That’s why, in 2014, Robert Morris University of Illinois’ Athletic Department began offering up to 50% tuition and 50% room and board scholarships to high school students who showed their prowess in the LoL arena. RMU’s eSports scholarship recipients spend hours each day practicing as a team–developing plays, coordinating strategy, and finessing maneuvers.
Recently, RMU’s eSports program was featured by CNN in its “Great American Stories” segment, highlighting the diversity of the co-ed team and how preparation for gaming both physically and mentally is comparable to other sports considered “normal” within a collegiate sports program.
Not that college students (and high school students) haven’t already been coordinating LoL teams in massive numbers already. There are estimated to be 1,600 club teams around the nation. You can even visit an interactive map to find teams near you on the LoL site.
In its debut year, RMU successfully qualified a team for the North American Collegiate Championships. This, along with the interesting leap of varsity scholarships for students, has drawn the attention of other U.S. colleges. This year, the University of Pikeville, a private, liberal-arts university in Kentucky, offers 20 scholarships to LoL gamers as well. Several other colleges are exploring the concept of eSports scholarships and what the move could do for the recruitment and retention of students.
This surge in interest comes with an concerning twist, though. Last year Riot games admitted it was happy with the collegiate partnership and continued interest but wasn’t sure about the longevity or future of eSports gaming at the collegiate level. This may be why RMU is already considering expanding its program to alternative games with similar format that are created by varying developers. The challenge will be if gamers can cross platforms successfully if needed. Consider it a Bo Jackson or Michael Jordan-ish type of multi-sport leap.
Finally, only time will tell if eSports will survive the court of public opinion or if traditional views of what sports and manly behavior looks like will label this movement as something to be shunned rather than embraced.
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