In the fall, a crop of young student-athletes will walk into Robert Morris University in Illinois with the first scholarships ever awarded in the United States for playing a video game.
"League of Legends," from Los Angeles-based Riot Games, is the most popular PC game in the world. Every day, around 27 million people sign on to battle each other in five-on-five fantasy brawls. Last fall, 10,000 people packed into the Staples Center in Los Angeles to watch the World Championship Final, where the winning team took home $1 million. In South Korea, pro players are treated like rock stars, with sponsorship deals and adoring fans.
Drew Dicksen, a senior at Robert Morris, hopes to make the varsity team next year when the university’s athletic department becomes the first in the country to recognize "League of Legends" as an official sport.
Now, he talks about dramatic moments in pro "League of Legends" matches with the same enthusiasm as a "cheesehead" might talk about an Aaron Rodgers touchdown pass.
"A football team might throw a Hail Mary, just like a 'League of Legends' team might get 'aced,'" he said, referring to when one team kills every single player on the other team.
Making the team won’t be easy. The Robert Morris coach, who has yet to be named, will have to winnow down the prospects to five starters and four others for the varsity team, and enough players for two or three support teams.
“There has been massive interest in it so far,” Kurt Melcher, associate athletic director at Robert Morris, told NBC News. In the one day after announcing the scholarships, he said received more than 500 emails from players interested in joining.
Next year, he will have 50 scholarships to give out, each one for about $19,000 in tuition and room and board. And while the NCAA does not recognize eSports, the team will follow “strict rules for behavior" just like any other sports team, Melcher said.
That scholarship money could help attract top players (and future tech-world talent) away from other schools. There are 103 teams that play in the Collegiate StarLeague, most of them classified as social clubs.
“I thought, we give out scholarships for other unique sports, like bowling,” Melcher said. “Why wouldn’t we give scholarships to athletes who play eSports?”
Yeah, you probably won’t see "League of Legends" highlights on ESPN's "SportsCenter" anytime soon, and nobody would confuse the team’s retrofitted computer lab for Midwestern sports shrines like Notre Dame Stadium or the University of Michigan’s “Big House.”
Still, this will very much be an official school sport, with daily practices, team meetings and maybe even spectators. The best eSports players don't need to be able to run a fast 40-year dash, but they do need quick reflexes, which is why not many professional "League of Legends" players last past their late 20s.
Both Melcher and Dicksen expect to see a lot of young, dedicated players try out for the team. If anything, they might be too dedicated.
“We might have to limit the amount of time that they practice," Melcher said, "so they don’t end up with too much Red Bull in their system.”