(Article written by Paul Tassi for Forbes.com)
Robert Morris University made headlines around the world when it became the first university to consider video game League of Legends a varsity sport, and in turn offer scholarships to pro players. Now, a second college has followed suit, the University of Pikeville in Kentucky, a small liberal arts school which will offer a similar program, as their media director Bruce Parsons explains:
“It’s actually becoming a worldwide trend,” said Parsons. “This game is five-on-five competitive play. It takes skill, practice and a lot of teamwork.”
League of Legends, the most popular game in the world by a mile with 67 million monthly players by last count, is indeed already a worldwide trend. What’s “becoming” a trend are smaller, relatively unknown schools offering scholarships for top players to attend their universities.
“It will be a regime a lot like athletics,” Parsons said. “They’ll have to have a certain GPA. We’ll look at them like student athletes. There will be practice time and video time when they have to study other teams for upcoming competitions.”
While I support anything that has to do with the exploding growth of eSports, and have championed the pastime for years now, I am torn on how to feel about these scholarship opportunities at this point. As it stands, we only have a pair of very small, obscure schools developing these kind of programs. I was hoping after Robert Morris, the next school to adopt such a scholarship program would be one I’d heard of, but University of Pikeville isn’t that.
As such, it’s a common thought that programs are being used more for publicity purposes than anything else. A gimmick to shed a national spotlight on a school than the other 49 states would never have heard of otherwise. It worked for Robert Morris, and sure enough, here we are talking about the University of Pikeville.
I don’t mean to be dismissive of smaller schools, but looking at the facts, neither of these specific universities are very highly ranked in the grand scheme of US colleges. Robert Morris is ranked 80th on US News and World Reports list of Midwest-based colleges. The University of Pikeville isn’t ranked by US News in any region, and one list I found has them at 47th out of the top 50 colleges in Kentucky alone.
Schools also tend to have a reputation within their state. Comments on other articles written about the new Pikeville scholarship aren’t exactly filled with glowing praise for the school. My wife was born and raised in Illinois and had plenty to say about what she knew of Robert Morris, and I probably shouldn’t print most of it here. Suffice to say she believed there were many better college options in the state.
I’m not trying to say League players should avoid these scholarships, but they should carefully consider their options. If the college isn’t right for them for whatever reason, it may not be the best decision simply because of the school’s “progressive” focus on eSports. I’m not sure whether or not Pikeville’s League of Legends scholarship is a full ride (on $18,000/yr tuition), but for Robert Morris ($23,000/yr tuition, $14,000 room and board), it’s 50%, meaning there are still a lot of costs to cover. Neither of these schools appear to be for-profit universities in the scammy sense, but they are privately owned, and are relatively expensive compared to local state options.
If you want to seek out one of these schools to leverage your League skills into a scholarship because you’re going to have significant trouble affording college otherwise, that’s great. But keep in mind that there are plenty of other need-based, merit-based or completely random scholarships out there, many of which would take less effort to acquire than being one of the country’s top League of Legends players, and would probably send you to a better school in the process. It’s just something that should be kept in mind before the base urge of “I can play video games to pay for college” fully takes over.
I think it would be great if someday dozens or hundreds of schools offered eSports-based scholarships. And honestly, I think at least Kurt Melcher, associate athletic director at Robert Morris has a great handle on the concept of eSports, and genuinely wants to help kids, rather than simply provide more press for his school.
“You know who this upsets?” Melcher said. “The middle-aged dude sitting in his La-Z-Boy watching NFL on weekends, going, ‘What? That’s not a sport!’ while he has the six-pack of beer and Cheetos. It challenges him in some weird way. Because it’s new.”
I actually love that perspective, and I feel like RMU is doing a lot right with their eSports program, though Pikeville’s is too new to judge right now. I’m just wary of saying “our day has come!” and having hundreds of thousands of hopefuls believe eSports has arrived at the promised land because two schools are offering scholarships for it. I suppose if this does turn into a larger movement, it had to start somewhere, but I think it’s too early to fully pass judgment on this experiment. And while passionate people may be involved with the program, it’s also impossible to believe that these very small schools aren’t hoping for national attention on the back of the unusual scholarship offering, or are wanting to gain some sort of street cred with teens for doing so.
I believe in the long-term future of eSports, but this could either be an important second step forward, or someone trying to take advantage of a trend that works as practically a viral ad campaign for their college. It’s hard to be sure just yet.