Colleges Recruit a New Kind of Athlete: Video Gamers

They’re the best of the best in college sport. They’re intensely recruited out of high school, they’re cheered by fans for their amazing skills, and, if they win, their universities bask in the glory. But they’re not football or basketball stars. They’re video game players, many of whom go by quirky screen names like Cackgod, Walrus, and Prototype.

An increasing number of colleges have created e-sports programs, looking for the top competitive video gamers in the country. And they’re offering some impressive incentives.

At Robert Morris University, in Chicago, all 80 members of the school’s e-sports teams get scholarships that cover up to 70% of their annual tuition. And earlier this year, the University of Utah announced plans to offer partial scholarships to e-sport athletes.

“Video games have evolved into nuanced, technical activities,” says Kurt Melcher, executive director of e-sports at Robert Morris University. “That’s no different than if you have a basketball team of superskilled point guards. It’s relatable in any way—minus the physical exertion.”

At present there are 42 schools, including Miami University in Ohio and Georgia State, in the National Association of Collegiate ­Esports, or NACE, which was founded in 2016 to provide structure to college e-sports programs. Five other schools have teams that are unaffiliated with the group.

That rapid growth has raised eyebrows at the NCAA, the traditional governing body of collegiate athletics. Its board of governors has signaled interest in adding e-sports to its purview, saying in a vague statement in August that it was exploring what to do.

2017 League of Legends College Championship
College e-sports teams compete against each other just as traditional sports programs do.Courtesy of Riot Games
Courtesy of Riot Games

NACE officials say they’re open to working with the NCAA if and when it recognizes e-sports. But they warn that the NCAA would need to approach competitive gaming differently from other sports, as issues like gender-parity rules in college sports (e-sports teams are coed, but the player base skews male) and the requirement that athletes be amateurs could be sticking points.

“The fear is they would push e-sports into the model of other collegiate athletics,” says Michael Brooks, director of NACE. “If true, that has the potential to do a lot of damage.”

College e-sports tournaments are organized in various ways. Some states such as Georgia have intrastate e-sports leagues. Meanwhile, NACE held a two-week winner-takes-all invitational tournament earlier this year and, starting in September, will kick off an e-sports season for schools (live-streamed for fans to watch). Separately, Riot Games, creator of League of Legends, the most popular e-sports game, also hosts an annual collegiate championship.

Related: Video Games May Be a Part of the 2024 Olympics

While the focus of e-sports programs tends to fall on the players, Jay O’Toole, assistant professor at Georgia State and director of the school’s e-sports program, notes that the competitions do a lot more than build cyberathletes. Student gamers, who often share handling the organizational details of their teams with schools, end up with some useful experience that could help them after they graduate.

“We’re offering support for broadcasting, support for PR and marketing, support for team management, support for community engagement—the full gamut around the ecosystem of e-sports,” O’Toole says. “Those are skills they’re going to need when they leave here, whether they stay in e-sports or go into the fields of banking or occupational therapy.”

A version of this article appears in the Oct. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune.

Correction (Sept. 28, 2017): The original version of this article misidentified the location of Robert Morris University. There are, in fact, two schools by that name. The one with the e-sports program is in Chicago, not near Pittsburgh.

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