Jumping from XP to dollars

Video game scholarship underscores the growth of eSports

By Kenneth Porter
Staff Writer

Turning virtual skills into cold, hard cash is a pipe dream for most gamers, but students at Robert Morris University in Illinois are doing just that thanks to the school’s first-of-its-kind video game scholarship. The program, announced in June, awarded 35 lucky students with yearly-renewable scholarships totaling more than $15,000 for playing on the school’s official varsity video game team.

From Google images.

From Google images.

The gamers will be very busy in the coming months. The small, private university of 3,000 students is set to join the Collegiate Star League, a competitive video game network of 103 colleges and universities.

The schools will battle on the virtual battlefield for a chance at winning the North American Collegiate Championship and a grand prize worth more than $100,000 in scholarship funds.

Robert Morris’ team specializes in League of Legends, a popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) video game.

The team’s “practices” do not occur on gridirons or playing fields. Instead, the athletes hone their skills in dim, glare-free and technologically advanced classrooms fitted with top-of-the-line gaming monitors and computers.

Matches can be extremely intense and absorbing for competitors and observers.

“[League of Legends] is very easy for spectators to get into,” said Spike Tereshko, League of Legends expert and Schoolcraft student. “Play-by-play game commenters are very informative and entertaining. The game itself is enjoyable for people that are playing, but even observers can find something to get into.”

Robert Morris’ program is another watershed moment for the competitive video game community, known collectively as e-Sports. For years, detractors have insisted that competitive video game playing should not be considered a “sport” due to its relative lack of physical activity, and competitors in e-Sports have struggled to gain legitimacy in the world of mainstream athletics.

“[Playing video games is] not a sport, it’s a competition,” said ESPN president John Skipper at the Code/Media Series: New York conference. “Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition. Mostly I’m interested in doing real sports.”

However, the growth and popularity of e-Sports cannot be denied, and it has begun to receive the attention and respect of traditional media outlets throughout the world.

The proliferation of video streaming websites such as YouTube and Twitch have caused the viewership of large-scale video game competitions to skyrocket, often competing with ratings totals for larger, more mainstream sports.

For example, last year’s “Season 3 Finals” League of Legends competition was watched by 32 million people—double the average audience of the 2013 MLB World Series.

“A lot of League of Legends’ features are similar to more traditional sports,” continued Tereshko. “The game’s turn-based, asymmetric gameplay is very ‘sports-like.’ As streamed tournaments become more readily available and easier to watch, e-Sports in general will become more accepted.”

But e-Sports is not just fun and games, it makes many gamers large amounts of money. According to consulting firm IHS Technology, e-Sports generated “$32.8 million in online advertising revenue in 2013, and is set to grow by over 250 percent by 2018 as programmatic advertising, new regions and new platforms make their presence felt.”

Esportsearnings.com estimates that top-ranked Defense of the Ancients (DotA) 2 player Zhihao Chen has made more than $1.1 million in prize money in e-Sports competitions, and Amazon recently purchased video game streaming site Twitch for $1.1 billion.

League of Legends and other competitive video games prove to be profitable pursuits for the best players, and programs such as Robert Morris’ make a career in video gaming a realistic possibility for thousands of ravage fans.

Video games are no longer just a weekend hobby or pastime. For a lucky few, they can become a career.

*Featured image from Google Images.