Column: Video Gaming Goes CollegiateAugust 17, 2015

Column: Video Gaming Goes CollegiateGiven a choice, most parents would probably prefer that their children spend more time playing sports and less time playing computer games in the hopes that the former may lead to a college scholarship. Now, the latter may also lead to a free education.

Robert Morris University (RMU) in Chicago and the University of Pikeville (UPike) in Kentucky are the first institutions of higher learning to offer scholarships for what is commonly known as eSports, what laymen refer to as playing computer games. Competitive gaming on the professional level has been around for decades but the collegiate version dates to 2009 when students at Princeton challenged their counterparts at MIT to a match of StarCraft. Around the same time a student at the University of California San Diego started his own team and the two groups decided to form a league which they named the Collegiate Starleague (CSL).

Soon thereafter, brothers at the University of Texas formed a club to organize eSports competition and dubbed it the Texas Esports Association (TeSPA). And in the summer of 2011, the IvyLoL (named after the League of Legends game) was formed. Since then, the growth of collegiate competitive gaming has been nothing short of phenomenal. Last year the CSL consisted of 550 teams and more than 5,600 players. This year the league introduced a third game – Dota 2 – to go with StarCraft and League of Legends. To broaden its appeal, TeSPA changed its name to the National Collegiate eSports Association (NCeSPA). The ploy worked. NCeSPA now consists of 700 schools.

Each of the leagues organizes competitions around the country with students competing for thousands of dollars in scholarships and prizes. The players are not considered professional, although a number of college players have moved up to the pro ranks. For players who don’t have the talent to go pro – very few players can make a living on the professional tour – the college option gives them a perfect outlet for their competitive juices while they earn a degree.

Because eSports aren’t recognized and sanctioned by the NCAA, they aren’t subject to the financial limitations and archaic rules that govern most collegiate sports. One benefit of that freedom is it allows teams to generate their own revenue. Some players compete wearing jerseys with sponsorship logos, a no-no for traditional sports.

RMU’s scholarship program was launched last fall. Scholarships cover 70% of the cost of tuition - $22,800 per year - for 35 varsity players and 35% of tuition for another 30 varsity reserves. The program was the brainchild of RMU’s associate athletic director, Kurt Melcher who had played the League of Legends game online. Melcher convinced his president that the program would create a broader pool of potential students and strengthen the bonds of students who do attend.

In addition to the scholarship funds, RMU hired a coach and built a $100,000 eSports facility – complete with $400 specially designed gaming chairs - on campus for players to practice and compete. This fall the university plans to add another 15-20 scholarships for students who compete in Dota 2 and another 10-15 for players who want to compete in a new game, Heroes of Warcraft.

Although the UPike eSports program was launched in the spring semester, the scholarship program will begin this fall with an initial 20 scholarships. Like RMU, UPike will also construct a building for students to practice and compete in.

Playing video games in college isn’t all about competition and fun and games. Students are held to the same athletic and academic standards as every other athlete. And unlike most college athletic teams, eSports teams are coed; women compete alongside men.

RMU’s Melcher claims to have heard from 25-30 schools that are interested in starting their own eSports scholarship program and many more are sure to follow. Melcher tells them that the practice, intensity levels and teamwork necessary to be successful in eSports is similar to that of traditional sports.

That comes as no surprise to the generation that spends five or more hours per day honing their craft. The surprised individuals are their parents who for years urged their offspring to develop their physical skills so they could obtain a college education for free, rather than spend their time playing video games. How times have changed!