If there's a sure sign eSports is moving into the mainstream, it's recent news of Illinois private school Robert Morris University (RMU) becoming the first university to offer scholarships for League of Legends.
RMU associate athletic director Kurt Melcher has been playing games for years, though it's dropped off. The 45-year-old used to love StarCraft, and one day found himself nostalgically looking up the game.
"I was like 'well, I wonder what ever happened to that game?' I was out of the loop," said Melcher. "I didn’t know there was a StarCraft II! I looked into that, and I saw it was played competitively, collegiately, and professionally. I thought 'Wow, that’s really neat!' That lead me to League of Legends."
Just as Melcher had no idea StarCraft was competitively played by millions in the United States and beyond, he was equally floored by how how many had flocked to League of Legends.
Earlier this year, League of Legends developer Riot Games announced the MOBA has more than 67 million players monthly and 27 million players daily, with at least 7.5 million playing simultaneously during peak periods. Just two years ago, that number was 32 million players monthly, 12 million players daily, and 3 million concurrent players. It's clear League of Legends is only getting bigger.
As Melcher continued his research, he started mulling a seemingly crazy idea: make League of Legends part of RMU's athletics program. League of Legend's team-centric nature helped cement the pitch.
"I told my athletic director, 'I’m gonna bring an idea to you, and I want you to be open minded.'" he said. "She was! [laughs] There’s a little buy-in [with it], but once you explain it, what goes into it, and what it’s like, it has all the same elements as traditional sports do. It fits hand-in-hand."
RMU revealed its scholarship program in June, looking to recruit students for the September school term. Melcher has been overwhelmed with applicants. When the school signed off, it tasked him with building a single team. More than 3,700 people have inquired about the program, resulting in more than 130 applicants. Now, Melcher is putting together 30 varsity players and 30 varsity reserve players.
When someone emails about the scholarship, the school's application fee is waived. During that process, RMU asks for their summoner name, which is what players go by in-game. This allows RMU's League of Legends coach to look up and vet the match rankings and statistics for prospective students.
At first, Melcher downloaded League of Legends to understand the game, but he's hardly an expert. Before RMU went forward with the scholarship program, it got in touch with Riot Games. The studio was happy to help. RMU was looking for someone within the community to give its program legitimacy, and Riot had just the guy: known recruiter Ferris "AGeNT" Ganzman. Based in Chicago, Ganzman was the perfect fit.
The RMU scholarship itself can cover up to 50% of tuition and 50% of room and board for students. In other words, nearly $20,000. The varsity players can qualify for more than the varsity reserve players.
Melcher admitted it's taken some convincing for students in more traditional sports.
"Once you talk to, say, a basketball player, [and] I explain it to them, [the response is] 'yeah, makes sense, if that’s what they like to do, why not have an opportunity?'" he said. "Playing within a team and destroying nexuses is no more valid for an indication than putting a ball into a net or a ball into a goal when you break it down, really. What’s the difference there, academically? It’s doing something that you love and are passionate about and combining that with a rigorous [academic] experience. I think it goes hand-in-hand."
The terminology surrounding competitive games can sometimes cause a reaction, though.
"I told my athletic director, 'I’m gonna bring an idea to you, and I want you to be open minded.'"
"There’s no cardiovascular element to it," he said. "I think we all can agree with that. [laughs] But people call bowling a sport. But there’s a skill involved, right? There’s not, cardiovascularly, a whole lot, but it’s a technique, it’s a skill. Same with League. Golf falls around there. [...] But it’s an eSport. It’s an online sport, but there’s definitely a strategy element, teamwork. All those fall inside of that."
Melcher and Ganzman comprise the eSports department at RMU, but it might expand in the future. League of Legends is hardly the only competitive game around, and Melcher acknowledged that. Right now, the school is building what it's calling an "eSports arena" for students to practice and compete in.
"The League players aren’t going to just be stuffed in a computer lab on only off-hours," he said. " [...] It’s going to be awesome. I feel confident saying it’s going to be the best eSports arena university in the nation. Because it’s probably the only one. [laughs]
(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)