University Turns To E-Sports For New Scholarship Opportunities
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
It's time now for All Tech Considered.
If you are really good at video games, that talent could be a way to help pay for college. Robert Morris University Illinois in Chicago has given scholarships to students they are calling e-athletes. Students have been recruited to play a specific game, "League Of Legends." The school has put aside nearly half a million dollars to fund about 30 of these scholarships. Manoush Zomorodi host of WNYC's podcast "New Tech City" went to spend time with the team to get find out how things are going. Hi, Manoush.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: First, this game "League Of Legends," it is hugely popular in South Korea but it's also becoming big enough in the U.S. so that these scholarships were handed out. How do you play it and why is it so popular?
ZOMORODI: Robert, even after spending the entire day with these kids, I am not sure I'm the right person to ask about how to play it but basically, the "League Of Legends," it comes from a company in LA, they're called Riot. It is not an easy game. Each player chooses from over 130 different characters who have various magical powers and then teams of five take on other teams of five and basically try to destroy each other.
And last year, Robert, more people watched the final "League Of Legends" championship match online than tuned in to watch the last game of the NBA finals - around 32 million people, worldwide.
SIEGEL: Wow. So you went to Robert Morris University Illinois to check things out. Who are the students who've won the school's first scholarships for e-athletes?
ZOMORODI: They are students like Daniel Apanco. He read about the program on the "League Of Legends" webpage and he was just one of thousands of kids who called and emailed the school and for Daniel, this new program was a chance to transfer from his local community college, where he was. And I talked to him about his parents' reaction when we were outside the school's practice arena last week.
DANIEL APANCO: I told my mom about it. She didn't believe me. She's like, you're crazy and there's no way. I'm like, yeah, there is. So I applied, got in and...
ZOMORODI: Why'd she think you were crazy? Because she was like, you can't get a scholarship for playing a video game?
APANCO: She thought I was like, making it up 'cause she personally doesn't even like me playing the game, but when she realized I was going to get a scholarship for it, she accepted it, you know? She tells all of her friends.
ZOMORODI: So Daniel's ranking was good enough for him to make the team and now Robert, half of his tuition is paid for and he's decided to major in graphic design.
SIEGEL: What is Robert Morris University hoping to get from having a varsity video game team?
ZOMORODI: That's a good question. So the university gets sponsorship from various tech companies who pay for all the equipment and it gets prize money from any tournaments that the team wins, but I talked to the coach, coach Kurt Melcher, he's the associate athletic director. He's the guy who came up with the idea and he says the program is also about diversifying the student body.
KURT MELCHER: I think it does two things. Students that are engaged in something outside the classroom generally perform academically a little better, they graduate at a higher rate. And secondly, I think, you know, on a weekend they compete in whatever - whether it's "League Of Legends" or whether it was men's football or basketball, then they go back to the dorms and oh, what'd you guys do today? Oh, we had this great game. We did this and this.
And they're exchanging ideas and what they did and when you add that sort of passion and that community response, you know, it just adds to the whole environment.
ZOMORODI: And from what I saw, Robert, it really was just like the football team or the track team - a tight-knit group.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) So what's it like to be a collegiate e-athlete?
ZOMORODI: Man, from what I saw it is hard work, Robert. They practice five hours a day. They have tournaments on the weekends. There is a lot of pressure to win and there are potentially other big payoffs. One student has already dropped out to go professional. Some of the pros at "League Of Legends" can earn up to a million dollars a year. So these kids are trying to treat it like it's a job and they are focused on making it to the championships in the spring.
SIEGEL: This is not an NCAA sport. Has there been any pushback from athletes on the campus who are in traditional sports?
ZOMORODI: Yeah, some people don't think it's a real sport. One player told me that the football team likes to make fun of them, but he says he thinks it's funny because those football players have been playing football probably their whole lives, he's only been playing "League Of Legends" for two years and they have got the same exact scholarship, and this kid also predicts that in five years we're all going to be watching the game on ESPN.
It's not happened yet, though.
SIEGEL: Do you have a sense of whether other schools are watching what Robert Morris is doing and thinking of doing the same thing?
ZOMORODI: No doubt. Other schools do have teams, they just aren't as official as Robert Morris. They don't offer scholarships but I think they are watching Robert Morris carefully to see how this all plays out. Oh - I'm sorry about the pun there, Robert.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) OK thanks, Manoush.
ZOMORODI: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's Manoush Zomorodi, host of the podcast "New Tech City" from our member station WNYC. You can download her whole show on varsity video game players this week, it comes out on Wednesday. Go to newtechcity.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.