Robert Morris University and the University of Pikeville are two schools expanding the concept of college sports to include video games—not only creating eSports teams, but also offering scholarships to gamers and building eSports facilities.
RMU, located outside of Chicago, was the first school in the U.S. to offer eSports varsity and varsity reserve scholarships. UPike, located in Kentucky, is the second, treating League of Legends video gamers like traditional football, basketball, and baseball athletes.
Kurt Melcher, associate athletic director at RMU, came up with the scholarship proposal after playing Riot Games' League of Legends online multiplayer game and seeing Riot Games set up its own collegiate league. He received approval from the university president to not only hire a coach and bring in student players, but also to build a $100,000 eSports facility for up to 36 players to practice and compete in on campus.
“ESports is just like real sports with kids playing different positions and working together as a team unit,” Melcher says. “We look at eSports and traditional sports as a second classroom where students learn about winning and losing. It’s engaging them outside of the classroom.”
RMU, a small private school with approximately 3,200 students, offered 35 students partial varsity (70 percent off tuition) and varsity reserve scholarships (35 percent off tuition). The school currently has 17 varsity and 16 varsity reserve players. Its League of Legends varsity team just came in second place in Riot Games’ North American Collegiate Championship. Each of the six team members from RMU was awarded a $15,000 scholarship from Riot Games.
RMU is already expanding its program. The school had a team compete in Blizzard Entertainment’s recent “Heroes of the Dorm” college tournament, which was broadcast on ESPN2 and received strong ratings. This fall it will add 15-20 scholarships for players of Valve’s Dota 2 and 10-15 scholarships for players of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, games which are both part of the Collegiate StarLeague (CSL).
Melcher plans to create a Mid Season Invitational eSports competition with local universities like DePaul, Northwestern, and Illinois State competing, with game streaming company Twitch livestreaming the event.
When Riot Games posted a story that RMU was accepting League of Legends scholarships, Melcher said he was inundated with 2,000 emails from gamers interested in the program. He was also flooded with inquiries by 35 other schools, each interested in how RMU had set up its program. One of those schools was UPike.
Bruce Parsons, director of new media at UPike, said he was approached by current students about starting a League of Legends club. After hearing interest from high school students in the area, he began researching the possibilities. With the example already set by RMU, the university decided to build a varsity program on campus to offer new opportunities for students and to bring in talented, technologically-savvy students from around the country to the Central Appalachian region.
The UPike eSports program will officially launch this fall with 20 scholarships in its first year. Those students will have their own eSports arena to practice and compete in, which will be built during summer break.
“We have had tremendous interest in our eSports program from around the world,” Parsons says. “Many students want to compete at the collegiate level in eSports and League of Legends. In addition to potential eSport athletes, we're also hearing from current students and potential recruits interested in shoutcasting and streaming eSports. We're going to build an entire collegiate gaming culture on our campus and spread it throughout our Central Appalachian region and to anyone else interested in participating.”
With a global eSports audience of 134 million and growing, according to Superdata Research, RMU and UPike are likely to be joined soon by other schools offering eSports scholarships.