Universities create new scholarships for 'e-sports' athletes

Coaches say these video game athletes demonstrate just as much passion and teamwork as traditional athletes.

M. Spencer Green/AP/File
Robert Morris University Illinois freshmen, from left, Sondra Burrows, Brian Rodonis and Alex Chapman practice playing the video game League of Legends with their collegiate teammates at their on-campus training facility in Chicago.

This fall, the University of Pikeville in Kentucky will welcome a new breed of athlete to its campus – one with quick reflexes, a strong sense of teamwork, and unparalleled keyboard skills.

Pikeville has introduced 20 athletic scholarships for students to play the competitive video game League of Legends. This new team will be the school’s first step into the rapidly growing world of e-sports.

“These will be student athletes, like any other here,” says Bruce Parsons, who leads the program as director of new media and instructional design at the private liberal arts college.

In League of Legends, teams of fantastical combatants must work together to lay siege to the enemy’s base while defending their own. The game has become one of the most popular digital spectator sports, with tens of millions of people tuning in to watch online tournaments. This attention has created dozens of professional players, multimillion-dollar prize pools, and club teams at hundreds of schools across the US.

Four American universities now offer scholarships for e-sports athletes: the University of Pikeville; Maryville University in St. Louis; Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan.; and Robert Morris University Illinois in Chicago, which led the push for varsity e-sports in 2014.

“One year in, we found that, more often than not, e-sports matched up with traditional sports,” says Kurt Melcher, who runs Robert Morris’s e-sports program and coaches its women’s soccer team. Sure, the players don’t run laps at practice, but their focus, passion, and teamwork rival that of any other student athlete, he says. This year, Robert Morris has expanded its scholarship program from 35 to 60 students and now includes three other video games with vibrant competitive communities.

Mr. Parsons sees Pikeville’s embrace of e-sports as a natural evolution, and, in fact, as a boon to the community in rural Kentucky. “There’s a bit of a brain drain here in Appalachia,” he says. “Students that are interested in technology, they don’t stay.” But the new League of Legends team has attracted a tech-savvy crowd that had eluded the school before. Students who applied for the e-sports scholarship had better grades, higher standardized test scores, and more interest in computer science than the average Pikeville student.

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