The ascendance of eSports — professional gaming — is very far from new. But this month, a private university in Chicago took the whole shebang one step further: Starting with this fall semester, Robert Morris University-Illinois will consider League of Legends a varsity sport — right up there with football, basketball and hockey. It’s the first U.S. school to do so.
Don’t laugh: LoL is deadly serious. The wildly popular multiplayer battle game, developed by Riot Games in 2009, logged more than 27 million players in January 2014 — as in 27 million players a day.
At RMU, there will be a League of Legends coach. League of Legends competitions against schools like Harvard, Princeton and MIT. And, yes — as if to forever cripple the arguments of the nation’s nagging parents — there will be generous athletic scholarships available to star video-game players, up to 50 percent the cost of attendance.
“eSports are so big with the 14-to-25-year-old demographic that RMU feels like we are providing an option to an underserved segment,” explained Kurt Melcher, the RMU athletic director overseeing the team. To that end, Melcher plans to treat the LoL-ers just like conventional athletes — complete with a coach, uniforms, scheduled practices and post-game meals.
This is all very interesting, of course. (Particularly Melcher’s description of the coach’s duties: they’re there to stomp the brakes on “15 Red Bulls and … playing all night,” is how he put it to Inside Higher Ed.) But none of this answers what we think is the most salient question about competitive eSports: How exactly do you identify, and evaluate, talent in a game that’s most frequently played from participants’ darkened basements? Melcher tells us it’s actually not too difficult to spot the top prospects in League of Legend’s hordes. As a gamer, you have a few ways to catch the school’s eye.
1. Play obsessively. League of Legends has its own ranking system already — as the word “league” would, perhaps, imply. Winning a ranked game racks up points, while losing a ranked game loses them. The points are used to divide players into a series of tiers based on their skill levels, the highest of which is “Challenger.” It takes time, and practice, to get to that level, but both professional teams and RMU say they watch the rankings.
2. Get on Twitch. Twitch, the massive video game streaming platform, logged 45 million users last year. Many of those users only watch games, or else stream in obscurity … but the best and most prolific streamers can attract live audiences into the tens of thousands. Melcher says recruiters will keep an eye on streaming “talent,” particularly on that platform.
3. Join a high-school team. They’re not terribly common, yet, but a number of high schools sponsor organized — even competitive — LoL teams. Melcher points me to High School Starleague, the pre-collegiate division of the same league RMU plans to join. While that league has only 750 teams thus far — a pittance, in comparison to more conventional sports — students anywhere in the U.S. can jumpstart their school’s team by filling out an interest form. (Notably, Starleague also provides its own collegiate scholarships for gamers, in conjunction with Twitch and Newegg.)
4. Go pro. Professional video gaming is, of course, a recognized eSport already — and because RMU’s team won’t be governed by the NCAA and NAIA, they’re open to accepting gamers who have already gone pro. “We can and would accept past professionals,” Melcher said, “… [as long as] they maintain sufficient progress toward their degree at RMU.”
5. E-mail Melcher. As of Monday, he had already received 500 inquiries and 70 applications at the school’s eSports recruiting address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melcher, for his part, is unconcerned about finding players for the team, even at the last minute. (RMU’s announcement on June 11 means interested students have just under three months to apply and enroll.) He always thought he could get a team together — after all, League of Legends is one of the world’s most popular multiplayer games. Now that he’s gotten some feedback from the eSports community, Melcher says he’s “positive!”
“The response from the community regarding varsity scholarships for LoL has been one of vindication, liberation and excitement,” he said. Many players “didn’t have the ability to compete in traditional sports, but were very good at their chosen activity” — video games.
Now at last, the gamers can be jocks, too.