By Mick Swasko, @swasko
11:20 AM CDT, June 19, 2014
Robert Morris University Illinois’s newest athletic team will be treated like every other at the school. Athletes will be offered scholarships, uniforms, post-game meals and a facility where they can practice. They also will be expected to attend team meetings, play at a competitive level and keep their grades up.
The only difference is the arena they play in doesn’t technically exist.
That’s the concept for what the university is calling a first-of-its-kind scholarship program for eGaming, where this fall, the school’s athletic program hopes to build a “League of Legends” team for competitive play. The role-playing/real-time strategy fantasy game boasts 67 million players per month, according to Riot Games, one of its publishers. Also according to Riot, Robert Morris will be the first school in the country to offer a collegiate-level athletic scholarship for competitive gaming.
“It came to me while I was looking up a game I used to play a while ago, ‘StarCraft,’” said Kurt Melcher, Robert Morris associate athletic director and eSport program director. “It led me to ‘League of Legends,’ and I was shocked at the scope and how many people are playing this game.”
The game has gained quite the following. Twenty-seven million players log on daily to play, and competition has become so fierce that tournaments have been featured on ESPN and broadcast at a packed Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Melcher successfully pitched the idea of an eSport team to the athletic department, and this fall, the school will offer scholarships of up to 50 percent of both tuition and room and board for those who qualify. The students will prepare to compete in the “League of Legends” Collegiate Star League, which includes 103 colleges and universities such as Harvard and Arizona State. The difference, however, is that RMU’s team will be the first to be recognized as athletes.
“It’s definitely not a sport where you’re exerting yourself cardiovascularly, but it’s mental,” Melcher said, adding that playing the game involves high levels of critical thinking, strategy and skill. “I think there’s an initial level of shock [among RMU’s other athletes], a rolling of the eyes. But when you explain what the game is and how you have to work as a team, people come to some level of understanding.”
Players take the form of one of many “champions” on a team of five. Champions have different abilities and skill sets, and teams must work together to destroy a base in the enemy team’s territory.
Melcher said he’s already gotten responses to his recruiting, fielding inquiries from players both locally and from as far as Serbia. He expects to field one to three teams initially, and hopes to add games like “Starcraft 2” and “Dota 2” if there is enough interest. While he hopes eventually to gain support at the collegiate level, it’s not likely to happen soon. An NCAA spokeswoman said in an email Thursday that the organization currently is “not considering adding eGaming as an NCAA championship” sport.
Still, Melcher hopes the idea spreads.
“We’re the first to give scholarships, but I hope we’re not the last,” he said. “I hope we someday have collegiate representation at some level.”
Drew Dicksen, an RMU men’s volleyball team member, is helping Melcher recruit students to the team. An avid “League of Legends” player himself, Dicksen said he is excited to be involved with the program.
“It gives people the opportunity to earn a higher education with a different skill set,” he said. “It gives people who may not be able to earn a scholarship with traditional sports a chance to do so with a skill set that’s becoming more popular.”
Dicksen said the concept has inspired chuckles among fellow athletes, but also excitement. He said the response among the gaming community has been so great that people have even sent messages via his “League of Legends” character asking about the program.
“Personally I would love to see this take off,” he said.
Melcher said those interested in more information about the program can visit rmueagles.com.
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