What was perhaps a wild pipe dream decades ago, merely a Dorito-fueled teenage daydream, has come true: colleges are paying students scholarships to play video games.
But hold your gasps of indignation. The concept of collegiate esports has blossomed and become much more organized in recent years. Some smaller private institutions view gaming as a way to attract prospective students amid enrollment downturns, and even a number of Division I colleges and universities have entered this digital arena.
“I’m typically talking to parents,” said Michael Brooks, the founder of the National Association of Collegiate eSports. “The parents -- they’re doing their jobs, looking out for interests of their son or daughter, but the most common question I receive is ‘Is this real thing?’ And that’s totally fair -- it’s brand-new.”
The system works like this: colleges form teams that train and compete with other institutions in some of the nation’s most popular strategy and battle video games. Those players often maintain stringent practice schedules that occupy a massive chunk of time, not unlike a typical athlete’s regimen.
Brooks’s association, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this July, gave structure to the handful of institutions that had already created varsity esports teams, starting with Robert Morris University Illinois, a private Chicago university that in 2014 wove gaming competitions into its athletics program and launched a scholarship program.
Robert Morris went all out -- players would don uniforms and eat postgame meals together, another ritual oddly similar to traditional athletics.
The “arenas” where these games are played, though, certainly depart from a football field or baseball diamond -- as Brooks describes them, they’re just complex computer labs, stocked with high-quality gaming PCs and hefty monitors, and gamers often pick their preference of keyboard, headset and mouse.
Nor are there spectator seats.
After all, if you were to witness matches, all you would see are students furiously clicking away, said Brooks, also the former director of strategic partnerships for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
Not to say that no one watches -- an audience of sometimes thousands remains invisible, viewing online, usually through Twitch, an online broadcast service, he said.
Such a statistic interests larger institutions, which are more often out to capture recognition rather than more students, Brooks said.
When the association was created, only six institutions joined, but that has since climbed to more than 30 member colleges and universities, he said. Brooks expects their membership to almost double in the coming months. The association represents nearly 95 percent of the institutions with varsity esports. Its analysis of esports colleges shows that almost every one offers annual scholarships to their players, at about a $7,600 average payout.
Determining which university department should lead such a program can prove trickier.
Though the national label is “esports,” it belies what most consider the classic sports -- more than 42 percent of the association’s member institutions do keep esports under university athletics. Another 42 percent place it with a student affairs office or a similar branch, and 14 percent of institutions deem it an academic endeavor.
The association hasn’t taken a stance on whether esports should fall under athletics, and Brooks said he anticipates the courts will address such definitions and possibly compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal law that protects against gender discrimination.
At Maryville University, in Missouri, athletics oversees the esports program, said Jarrett Fleming, the private institution’s coordinator of athletics and recreation.
“It’s really their time,” Fleming said. “This is the new generation of student athletes. It’s different because we haven’t seen anything like this.”
Though the program only was introduced a year ago, one Maryville team -- its League of Legends players -- has already tasted fame. Almost every esports institution fields teams playing League of Legends, which has long outlived the shelf life of most video games. It involves complex strategy commanding a “champion” and a mini army to destroy the opposing team’s base as quickly as possible. The developer of League of Legends, Riot Games, sponsors professional tournaments, too, with opportunities to vie for big bucks.
Maryville dominated the 2017 League of Legends college tournament and will travel to China in July for a worldwide competition.
The students were treated with more reverence than some professional athletes, being dusted with makeup for on-camera interviews and performing before a cheering crowd. They’ve taken home trophies from this and other competitions, and championship rings.
Fleming wouldn’t disclose exact scholarship amounts, but he said every player earned a $2,000 stipend just for participating. Originally, esports there was built up as a pipeline for potential students, a move that paid off for Maryville, he said, though he did not specify how many students the program has recruited.
Esports at Southwest Baptist University, also in Missouri, was meant to lure some students from their dormitory rooms, said Chris Allison, the esports head coach and director of the wellness and the sports center there. A former residence life official, Allison said he would observe students who, confined to their rooms with video games, would eventually flunk out. Esports at Southwest Baptist tries to forge a community of gamers who otherwise would be tied to those rooms, he said.
“If we bring that virtual community into physical space, with more of their students engaged and coming out of the dorm rooms, that relates to better retention and persistence to graduation,” Allison said.
The university provides scholarships dependent on skill at League of Legends, anywhere from $500 to $10,000, Allison said. Though it’s not a hard sell to students -- playing video games for money -- no formal recruitment channels have been established for this type of program, leaving Allison to scan online forums to explain it, he said.
Southwest Baptist’s League of Legends team plays the game between 15 to 20 hours a week and as a group does physical workouts and mental and -- as a religious institution -- spiritual exercises, too, Allison said.
Players are not glued to their seats the entire program -- they’re using stationary bicycles and taking Pilates classes, he said.
The physical therapy school is conducting research using the esports program on the “flight or fight” response that’s generated when someone plays video game -- while the adrenaline is worked out when someone plays a field sport, that’s not the case with games, Allison said.
A dozen students also helped sponsor an esports expo last spring that, despite being held on a day flash floods soaked the campus, drew in more than 200 people. It was a six-hour affair that featured League of Legends play, and for hours, the institution was featured on the Twitch homepage and garnered more than 70,000 views of the feed -- unprecedented attention for the small private institution.
“I would just encourage anyone that doesn’t know anything but wants to know about it to spend a little bit of time watching it,” Allison said. “For us really at the core it’s about community.”