Tuesday, April 07, 2015
Apparently I’ve had it wrong all these years. I encouraged, nay even demanded, that my kids and grandkids spend as much free time outside running and screeching. Even in the winter I would send them to the basement to run and screech, safely removed from the temptations of electronics. I signed them up for athletic teams so they could develop healthy habits, learn cooperation, understand the humility of wins and losses, and possibly, just possibly, earn a college scholarship. I am one in a legion of parents with the same requirements and dreams. We drive our kids thousands of miles every year so they can get to practices, matches, and tournaments. We spend a king’s ransom on uniforms, equipment, dues, and private coaching. We battle the elements in order to support our young players. Most importantly, we pat ourselves on our backs that we don’t have those squinty-eyed, slouch-shouldered kids who spend their free time clicking on a video controller and staring at a TV screen.
Then my entire world was shattered by this weeks’ TIME magazine. Using March Madness as a backdrop, TIME did an extended report on college e-sports better known as video gaming. Just 90 miles down the road in Chicago is the first college to offer athletic scholarships in video gaming. These aren’t some token amount — they can be as much as $19,000 rivaling and even surpassing the amount given to most physical athletes including those battling for March Madness glory. Robert Morris is a commuter school in the heart of Chicago that has attracted corporate sponsorships for their gaming athletes who wear jerseys and fall under the athletic rules of the college but not those of the NCAA. This means that when they compete in their “Final Four” championship this May, the winning team is guaranteed $30,000 in scholarships, plus the players can be awarded money and equipment from game companies. They train in state-of-the-art classrooms outfitted with ergonomic chairs, HD TVs, and high speed internet, all donated by the industry’s companies.
Gaming is big business, which is probably why schools, including Harvard and Stanford, are flocking to cash in on the trend. There is a collegiate league that sponsors the North American College Championship leading to that “Final Four” showdown. Who competes? Amazingly, many of the schools who have established NCAA sports programs such as University of Michigan and Texas A&M. However, it’s smaller, private schools who are the pioneers in this program. Just recently the University of Pikesville (KY) announced it would be offering scholarships in the fall. Presently, dozens of other schools, even some athletic powerhouses are exploring the prospect of setting up e-sports programs. This might be the start of the NCAA having to address the issue of amateurism in college athletics. With the e-sports athletes being able to cash in on their abilities with scholarships, salaries, and products, they may soon outstrip their basketball and football counterparts in financial viability.
The president of Robert Morris, Michael Viollt, feels that the program adheres to the same teaching and community standards as other sports teams. “These guys have to learn to communicate with one another in clear and concise patterns, and take leadership positions.” The operative word in that statement is “guys.” Gaming is traditionally a male pursuit. Since the e-sports teams aren’t under the auspices of the NCAA it means they are probably outside of the Title IX rules as well. That means college women may be shut out from this pool of money. In addition, these e-sports athletes are as prone to the enticements of professionalism as are their athletic brothers. The lure of huge paychecks in the professional competition ranks can pull players out of the college level quickly. In a recent championship in Seattle in July for “Dota 2,” the Chinese team members each earned a $1 million prize. Competitive gamers can earn on average $4,000 a month. My son who briefly went pro in indoor soccer was being paid around $500 — a season. Certainly makes one think, doesn’t it?
Lest you believe this isn’t a spectator sport, you should know that the 2014 World Championship of “League of Legends” drew 40,000 fans to the World Cup stadium in Seoul. There were over 32 million viewers for the 2013 championship streamed online. So it’s no wonder that ESPN has taken notice. They will air the finals of “Heroes of the Storm,” which begin as a 64-team collegiate tournament. It’s no coincidence that sounds like a familiar bracket set-up. However, last year’s NCAA final between Kentucky and Connecticut drew 21.2 million viewers, which “Heroes of Storm” should eclipse. Although the “League of Legends” finals only drew 130,000 in 2014, those numbers are expected to jump dramatically this year. More importantly, the winners of the “Heroes of Storm” competition are guaranteed a three-year college tuition scholarship. No one on the winning Kentucky team got that guarantee.
E-sports teams are run in a parallel fashion to their sports counterparts. Players must attend daily practices, must attend all their school classes, and must maintain a study trajectory to graduate on time. They watch team films which are replays of certain sections of their contests against one another and against other schools to find ways to maximize their power. These scrimmages are an important part of their training just as they are for college sports teams. The e-gamers take their training very seriously. They concentrate on good nutrition, the right amount of sleep, learning to trust their teammates, and developing strategies for improved play. They have coaches who give notes and encourage better teamwork.
There is presently the National Collegiate e-Sports Association (NCeSPA) which compiles statistics on the colleges who compete. There are Eastern and Western divisions where presently Georgia Tech and University of British Columbia sit on top. Because matches don’t require any travel, these teams can compete across the country easily, opening up the competitive possibilities. On its website, NCeSPA allows viewers to see the players, learn the schedules, and keep track of statistics (www.ncespa.com). Collegiate StarLeague (www.cstarleague.com) lists an extensive bracket for the various game competitions they sponsor and actively advertise for teams to join with the prizes they will award to the athletes who win. They have links to Twitch, the online gaming application which connects gamers to one another through chat rooms and which streams games, and to Razor University which recruits e-sports athletes for teams. Twitch was recently purchased by Amazon for nearly $1 billion (yes billion with a “b”) showing the financial power gaming has acquired and the trust major investors have that this pot of gold will continue to grow.
All of this certainly makes me re-evaluate the push for our sons and daughters to succeed on the pitch. It may be that they’d be better off taking a quick run every morning and then knuckling down with their mice, keyboards, computers, X-Boxes, and PlayStations. As one scholarship player, Jonathan Lindahl, said, “My parents were always telling me to get off the Xbox. So I’m really rubbing it in their faces.” Given that a much larger percentage of e-sporters end up playing professionally than the 1.2 percent of other college athletes and that their ability to immediately cash in on their talents while still at school could make e-sports a far more attractive option for getting an athletic scholarships. Given that most sports cost families dearly during their youth development and given that most of us already supply our players with the tools to play video games, we may all be better off simply concentrating on the latter and forgoing the former. As e-sports grows so too will the popularity of individual players, the status of schools with winning teams, and the opportunities for more scholarships. I certainly don’t regret one single moment of watching my kids play in their various sports: soccer, basketball, baseball, swim team, dance team, and cheerleading. I also don’t regret the money we spent. But now I get it when there’s a line outside of Game Stop for a week before the new Halo or Call of Duty version is released. Those kids know a cash cow when they see one.