“Excuse the argument around the word – but this is my sport.” These college students take their video games seriously. They have to. They’ve been awarded scholarships to hone their skills at some of the first colleges to roll out varsity gaming programs. “My name is Andrew Smith. My role is the midlane. … I’m like the central leader of the team, you could say.” “My name’s Connor Doyle. I’m the AD carry, shot caller and team captain for Columbia College.” Collegiate esports have arrived, and fast. In the last decade, competitive video games have exploded in popularity and built an enormous global audience. And more and more colleges are looking to capitalize on student interest. Now, committed players have the chance to use their skills to help pay for school. The most popular game is League of Legends, where teams challenge each other for control of a virtual battlefield. There are more than 100 characters to choose from, which means no two games are ever the same. “I started playing League of Legends in high school. I think it was my freshman or sophomore year.
I played pretty casually with friends.” “My junior year of high school … My best friend … he made me try this game. I never actually thought I’d play it very long. Of course, here I am about five, seven years later.” “I kept getting better and getting better, and one day had the realization that ‘maybe this is something we can actually do.'” Over the last decade, intramural esports leagues have appeared, giving teams a chance to compete in season play and tournaments. The Collegiate Star League formed in 2009, and Tespa — formerly the Texas Exports Association — came online in Austin, Texas in 2010, and has since expanded nationally. Now, small colleges have some of the biggest esports programs in the country. In 2014, Robert Morris University Illinois in Chicago became the first college to offer varsity scholarships for League of Legends. In 2015, Maryville University in St. Louis followed suit. Four months later and 107 miles west, Columbia College announced its own program. To fill their new programs, colleges send out surveys, poll incoming students — and sometimes scout talented players from right out of the game’s leaderboards. “Columbia College actually reached out to me. They recruited me.” “The coordinator of the program Dan… he contacted me when he was starting the program, and I elected to join.
” Esports even has its own organizing body. The National Association of Collegiate Esports lists 45 member colleges. It’s like an esports version of the NCAA, since the NCAA itself has not yet recognized esports. The schools couldn’t discuss exactly how much their scholarships are worth — but Maryville said that for some students, the scholarships made it possible to attend school at all. It also helps that players are fiercely interested. “It was a really quick decision for me. “My parents were pretty open. … I think they thought it was the right choice for me to come here. … What parents don’t want their kids to go to college?” “Leaving a really good institution, giving up a degree that would probably have me set for life. Leaving my state, leaving my friends to go after a dream with a relatively low chance of success. That was a tough sell.” And being a collegiate gamer isn’t easy. For many players, it means changing how they think about gaming and adjusting to hours of intense practice. “You need to flip a switch in your head to change it from a game to a competition. When most people think of videogames, they think of something they do for relaxation. Once I flipped that switch in my head and said ‘I want to do this,’ I started treating it like a job.” For others, it’s just a change of pace. Andrew at Maryville played semi-professionally, where the demands can be even greater, before he joined the college team. “When I was playing the most, it was eight to ten [hours] on average. And that’s six, seven days a week. That’s a lot of time. I was like three years out of high school. I wasn’t sure if I was going to go back to college or not at that point.” “It honestly gave me an outlet to play less, but still play competitively — as well as to go to school.” All that practice time isn’t just about building their own skills, either. They’ll also have to overcome the biggest challenge in esports – learning to gel seamlessly as a team.