[toc]It’s the 21st century. Computers are now a staple of everyday life. Smartphones have taken the world by storm. Internet connectivity is no longer a luxury but a necessary commodity.
And colleges are embracing these technological advancements in droves.
Lecture halls are now mini-web series and college courses can now be completed at the leisure of the student from his or her own home. It’s no surprise then that colleges are now incorporating online sports — organized video game competitions commonly known as esports — into their athletic programs.
Gamers are athletes too
The idea that people who play video games for a living can be compared to professional athletes will be ludicrous to some. Yes, esports athletes are not going to hang with LeBron James in a footrace from baseline to baseline or line up for tackling drills with J.J. Watt, but there are some surprising similarities between the two groups.
The physical limitations of gamers aside, both groups require unique talents, skills and the determination to be the best at their craft.
Riot has gone a long way toward bridging the gap between traditional sports athletes and esports athletes. It was just a few years ago that Riot battled with the U.S. government to allow its foreign players the same equality rights as foreign players in major league sports.
The U.S. government now designates visas to esports athletes in the same manner as any athlete looking to compete in the United States.
Scholarship opportunities for esports are expanding
It’s no shock that League of Legends, arguably the most popular game in the world, is prevalent on college campuses. Colleges have to adapt to an ever-evolving youth movement, competing for the attention of prospective students.
That’s led to six different private schools developing scholarships for esports athletes, as well as hundreds more universities featuring student-run clubs.
Another milestone was reached at the end of March when the University of California, Irvine announced it would start offering esports scholarship opportunities during the 2016 fall semester. UC Irvine will be the first public university to offer such scholarships.
Riot has subsequently embraced the move by funding a new PC café on campus for all UC Irvine students.
Said Michael Sherman, Riot’s collegiate program manager:
“We look at regions like Korea where, since launch, PC cafes have been essential to Korean players,
They expect a premium game experience when they go play in those PC cafes. We’re trying something out similar to that on college campuses. We want to give people a reason to be excited to come play at a PC cafe to support their school and team.”
Essentially the business model for Riot moving forward will be assisting any additional universities that decide to offer esports scholarships. Riot has stated it will continue to financially support PC café locations on campuses that offer esports scholarships.
It’s not just League of Legends getting involved
It’s also worth noting that League of Legends isn’t the only game being featured at the college level. Heroes of the Storm, created by Blizzard, just completed its second season of the Heroes of the Dorm tournament. The tournament was even featured on ESPN2 and included more than $500,000 in tuition and other prizes.
Heroes of the Dorm essentially captures the same spirit as March Madness (the postseason tournament for NCAA basketball). Both tournaments feature 64 teams and are held over a monthlong period of time. The Final Four in March Madness is dubbed the Heroic Four in the Heroes of the Dorm tournament.
However, there’s one other major obstacle esports has to overcome at the collegiate level — organized tournaments and competition.
Traditional sports have decades of established tournaments and events, where League of Legends is still comparatively in its infancy. Riot has made strides to improve that situation, however.
In 2014, the developer launched the North American Collegiate Championship, building on the effort of various fan-run college tournaments. After two successful years, the NACC has evolved into the University League of Legends Campus Series (uLoL), a 32-team ongoing league not unlike the professional level North American League of Legends Championship Series.
League of Legends has the infrastructure in place
Beginning in 2016, the Campus Series split into four regions — north, south, east and west — with eight teams from each region competing in a round-robin series of games. Last year, more than 500 schools entered the competition before being whittled down to 32 teams.
A few months ago we saw the University of British Columbia take down Robert Morris University in the 2016 Campus Series Finals.
Another school that jumped into the fray just this year is Columbia College.
“Esports aren’t the future,” said Columbia College President Scott Dalrymple in a statement. “They’re the present. True skill at video gaming is just as impressive, and just as legitimate, as excellence in traditional sports.”
Collegiate esports don’t just provide an opportunity for a student to receive a scholarship; they have also become a breeding ground for talent in the LCS. Most noteworthy is Immortals’ starting support player, Adrian “Adrian” Ma.
Adrian joined Team Impulse in 2015 after attending Robert Morris University on an esports scholarship. He now plays alongside superstar players, like Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon and Kim “Reignover” Ui-jin, on a team that finished last split with a 17-1 record.
While collegiate esports are beginning to take off in North America, the same cannot always be said for other countries in the world where League of Legends is prominent. Cultural, economic and structural differences in the educational system of each country is a formidable challenge for Riot to overcome as it looks to expand its footing in other countries.
The future of esports
Collegiate esports are poised to see substantial growth in the coming years.
Along with Riot’s University of League of Legends series and Blizzard’s Heroes of the Dorm tournament, smaller tournaments are also popping up. The Big Ten Network and Riot just sponsored the first-ever Big Ten Network Invitational in April of this year, pitting Ohio State against Michigan State in a televised event at PAX East.
The Pac-12 has also announced it will feature esports tournaments through its conferences television network and host a tournament.
You don’t need to look far to see the potential that esports have at the collegiate level. NCAA football may be too prime of an example, but its extension all the way to the youth level draws parallels to esports.
It’s also noteworthy that certain sports fans prefer collegiate sports and are completely disconnected or not interested in the professional leagues. There’s a massive opportunity for esports to grow at the college level, and Riot is all about progressing that movement as quickly as possible.