Their arena in downtown Chicago is a converted classroom, their uniforms T-shirts, their campus celebrity akin to the French club’s.
But in one significant way, the 85 members of Robert Morris-Illinois’ Esports team are no different from players on the school’s league championship football squad.
They get athletic scholarships, too.
The nerds are invading jock world. At Robert Morris and more than two dozen other campuses around the United States, student-run gaming clubs have transitioned into full-blown varsity sports teams.
“We operate our Esports the same way we operate baseball,” said Kurt Melcher, an associate athletic director at Robert Morris.
Given the widespread popularity of video games, experts said, it likely won’t be long until college athletic departments everywhere add Esports teams.
“It’s becoming more mainstream all the time,” said A.J. Dimick, who directs Esports at the University of Utah. “It belongs in athletics.”
Though the scholarship phenomenon has been most evident at smaller, less-prestigious schools – many of them are eager to enroll the tech-savvy students gaming attracts – the athletic powerhouses might soon enter the picture.
Since Robert Morris became the first college to offer Esports athletic scholarships in 2014, Melcher has been contacted by “at least 150 interested schools, big and small.”
“They want to look at our template, to see how we structured it, what the pros and cons are, what the best practices are,” he said.
Several Big Ten club teams – though not Penn State – took part in a 2016 invitational tournament televised on that conference’s TV network. And just last month, Utah became the first Power Five conference member to award Esports scholarships.
“Ours is a very game-friendly campus,” explained Dimick, who said several Pac-12 schools could soon emulate Utah. “All these mainstream sports inform our Esports program, and we want it to be run in the same way.”
In addition to the 25 or so varsity programs, there are at least 750 competitive campus Esports clubs, including those at Villanova, Penn, Temple, and Princeton.
“I think it’s certainly gaining ground,” said Joe Colson, one of 150 students in Villanova’s Esports club and a member of that organization’s competitive team. “In countries like China and Korea, it’s huge and competing with major sports. I wouldn’t expect it to reach that point here, but I do think it will continue to grow.”
‘It’s the Wild West’
Villanova and the other area student groups were among hundreds of club and varsity teams in the United States and Canada participating in the 2017 League of Legends College Championship, the finals of which will be held this week in Los Angeles.
Like most college leagues and tournaments, that event is sponsored by a video game manufacturer, L.A.-based Riot Act, which makes League of Legends, the most popular game in college ESports. Other companies sponsor similar events, with scholarships awarded to the winners.
“It’s March Madness-esque,” Colson, who just finished his junior year, said of the LOL event. “It starts early in the year with pool play in four regions. They play best of three, and the winners move on.”
The rapid ascent of Esports toward the college athletic mainstream has been compared to that of beach volleyball. That pastime exploded in popularity after the 2000 Olympics. Once nonexistent on campuses, the game now has 72 NCAA-approved beach volleyball programs.
The real Esports boom, Dimick and others predicted, will happen when a formalized structure is established by the NCAA or some other governing body, a system that resolves current differences in competition and compliance.
“Right now,” Dimick said, “it’s the Wild West.”
One problem schools that might be interested face in this age of Title IX is that most Esports participants are male. Melcher blamed that disparity on the fear some young girls have about interactive online experiences.
“Our program is 98 percent male,” he said. “I tend to believe that might be because there’s an online toxicity that discourages girls. But there’s no size, speed, or strength variances, so I think we’ll eventually get to a point where they won’t worry about being shamed.”
What’s fueling Esports’ campus popularity is the ubiquity of video games. According to a recent survey by NPD, a marketing-research group, 91 percent of American youngsters between 2 and 17 play them regularly. That interest doesn’t wane when they reach college.
“Esports is quickly on its way to becoming a permanent part of the world’s athletic culture,” said Kalie Moore of the Esports Observer.
At Robert Morris, a small NAIA commuter school unaffiliated with the Pittsburgh college of the same name, two levels of Esports financial aid are available: A “varsity” scholarship covers 70 percent of tuition, a “varsity reserve” 35 percent.
A boot camp during the first three weeks of classes culls the top six or seven players who will compete at the highest level. Altogether, Robert Morris’ program contains five levels of Esports teams.
“It’s win-win for our school,” Melcher said. “We now have 85 kids doing something they’re really talented at and passionate about. It’s the same as our football team. They’re excited to be a part of our athletic community.”
Robert Morris’ arena is an old classroom that has been refitted with fully loaded gaming chairs, state-of-the-art computers, 144-megahertz monitors, and high-quality lighting.
There are no accommodations for spectators yet, but professional Esports, which often draw large and enthusiastic crowds, provides an intriguing model.
“It’s a virtual sport,” Melcher said, “but seeing it live at a high level can be a really great spectating experience.”
With a club structure already in place, colleges eager to capitalize on this trend can start and maintain varsity programs much more easily and economically than with a traditional sport.
“It makes economic sense,” Melcher said. “There’s an entry cost to get the gaming systems and the space, but because it’s all virtual and done online there’s no travel, no flights.
“It’s an easy add for any kind of university.”
[IMAGE: Los Angeles Times]