Robert Morris University in Illinois has just offered the first-ever athletic college scholarship for playing the League of Legends video game. The award, covering up to 50 percent tuition, room and board, has already attracted over 700 applicants in its first week, and the directors of the program are excited to see it grow. Could the age-old parental adage of wasting time with video games in school no longer hold true? What could this mean for the eSports community?
League of Legends is a free-to-play, team-based and competitive multi-player game developed by Riot Games and available for PC, Mac and Linux. The players take the role of champions controlling a horde of minions and building a small base. The goal is progressively to upgrade the hero and the army, slowly making way across the map to the enemy camp and destroying it. It is based on a highly popular modification of a Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne mod Defense of the Ancients, proving even more successful than its predecessor does. Since its release in October 27, 2009, the game has reached 27 million daily players, with a whopping 67 million each month.
Given such huge appeal, the game (among several others) has become a popular virtual eSport, with millions following the World Championships in real-time. A number of other titles in the past have also spawned huge international tournaments, such as Starcraft or Counter-Strike. It is not the first time competitive gaming is involved in education either. The High School Starleague organizes tournaments in Starcraft 2, League of Legends and Dota 2 for North American schools. About 750 schools in 46 states plus eight in Canada participates in these events. On the college level, Robert Morris University claims to be one of the 103 institutions competing with other universities in eSports, including Arizona State, George Washington and Harvard.
However, it is the first time where playing a video game such as League of Legends can be awarded an athletic scholarship to attend a University. Kurt Melcher, the Associate Athletic Director at the school, is the one spearheading the initiative. He explained, “League of Legends is a competitive, challenging game which requires significant amount of teamwork to be successful,” no less a sport than many others. After all, the university offers financial aid to their bowling teams or choir and band even though neither requires physical activity. Melcher puts it succinctly – “League of Legends is no different than say the skill required or amount exerted as bowling.”
Nevertheless, a team sport also requires a certain amount of sportsmanship. League of Legends community has often been criticized for being “venomous towards newcomers,” as IGN put it. Swearing, angry rants and even insults are not uncommon in the chat window during play, especially if a particular player is not doing very well. Such vitriol, sadly, is not new to online gaming as a whole. However, pushing the game into the realm of a formal college athletic activity could require greater etiquette. Melcher recognizes the gaming stereotype and hopes to “put reverse elements into it,” making sure the students are “good citizen within the university.’” Hopefully, the lesson carries into the virtual playfield as well.
While many such video game tournaments, including both High School and College Starleague, have monetary rewards, Robert Morris University is the first ever to offer an athletic college scholarship for playing League of Legends. With so many players all across the world, and so many different leagues to compete in, gaming is no longer just the dominion of the stereotypical basement dwelling and mountain-dew drinking introverts. Hopefully, this change can bring a bit more legitimacy and much-needed sportsmanship to eSports.
By Jakub Kasztalski