Members of Robert Morris Universitys eSports team get their gaming on.
  • Courtesy Robert Morris University eSports
  • Members of Robert Morris University’s eSports team get their gaming on.

On the third floor of Robert Morris University‘s State Street campus, there’s a room that looks like a cross between a NASA control center, a submarine deck, and an arcade. Nearly every piece of equipment inside the room has a splash of red, from the ergonomic DXRacer chairs to the hard drives that have a display noting the CPU core temperatures. The metal brackets that run across the ceiling are crammed with cords that connect dozens of monitors. And there’s a massive screen on the back wall lets coaches watch games in real-time or play back recordings for the team to analyze. It’s the school’s eSport’s Arena, the centerpiece of their eSports program.

Robert Morris is the first school in North America to grant varsity status to video gamers and offer them scholarships—top players receive half tuition, as well as room and board, which adds up to around $19,000 a year. It’s a calculated investment in a new type of student athlete, and it taps into the rising popularity of competitive video games.

“You feel like a pioneer,” says associate athletic director Kurt Melcher, who proposed the new program. “You’re leading the charge, which is never a bad thing to add to your university. When we first announced it, I received a couple of mean e-mails. ‘How do you call yourself an athletic director?'”

On October 18, the 35-member team will begin playing the massive multiplayer fantasy game League of Legends against other collegiate teams.

Some people might take issue with it being considered a sport, but competitive video gaming is exploding and has been for some time. Top teams stream their matches on sites like Twitch, which Amazon recently bought in a $970 million all-cash deal. The October 19 League of Legends World Championships, being held at Sangam Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, the site of World Cup matches in 2002, is expected to sell out every one of its 65,000 seats. As Melcher sees it, it’s a competitive activity and although it’s not a physical pursuit like basketball or football, it serves to instill certain values in its players.

“It only adds to the community and environment of the school,” he says. “eSports, specifically League of Legends, has a lot of similarities to traditional sports. To me, it’s about building team camaraderie, learning how to win and lose, and, in that sense, it mirrors that kind of interaction you’d find in other sports.”

Michael Sherman, who got started in collegiate video games as vice president of Ivy Wall IvyLoL League of Legends in 2011 and now works with the North American Collegiate Championship (which is organizing a nationwide tournament in 2015), has seen the collegiate scene grow from student-organized clubs to school-sanctioned teams that have made names for themselves.

“The exciting thing about this format is you’ll see these rivalries emerge, with certain powerhouse programs squaring off,” Sherman says. “It’s the first time players are paying attention to who’s playing for who—Robert Morris is the team to beat.”

That status may be due, in part, to “Killer’s Row,” a corner of the eSports Arena where the top five players at Robert Morris sit and game together. All have or have previously held “challenger” status, the highest ranking for League of Legends players (only .02 percent of all players in North America). When they run practice matches, they have a hard time finding a team that offers a compelling challenge. Youngbin Chung, a 20-year-old Korean-American freshman from California who plays under the name “a Leo” studies computer networking. Like many of his teammates, he said his parents were shocked that he could get a scholarship for playing video games, even though he’d already competed professionally in the Go4lol pro series and, like other players on Killer’s Row, could potentially gain a spot on a pro team. But, he really wanted to go to school, and he says he’s enjoyed the camaraderie of playing together.

“It’s really different when you have teammates together at the same time,” he says, “being on the same schedule and hanging out in the dorms together. I play here more than I play at home, since I have this practice room. Here, I stay focused on the game.”

The bond between players comes from the way League of Legends demands cooperation and offers variety. Put most simply, it’s sort of like capture the flag. On a large square battlefield broken by three “lanes” each team guards its base, or nexus, while trying to attack the opposing team’s base. Players also choose from 125 different characters, or champions, to play, all of which have different abilities and attributes that can be combined in any number of ways. For instance, Chung likes playing Zed, Yasuo or Fizz, assassin-style characters. The combination of shifting battlefields and different character combinations requires tactical planning and execution.

Ferris Ganzman, the team’s coach, paces up and down the rows of monitors during four-hour long practices offering insight and advice to his team. He says winning is all about testing different lanes, building up certain characters’ strength, and feeling out when your team has the advantage.

“I enjoy the competitiveness and strategy of it,” says Sean Bensema, an 18-year-old from Tinley Park who plays under the name Shockwave. “I’ve played Destiny and a lot of other similar games, and they’re fantastic, but they can be repetitive.”

Though the season has yet to start—they won’t know their competition in the Collegiate StarLeague until October 16—Melcher is already looking ahead to next year. He’s hoping to add more players, pick up another eSports game such as Hearthstone or Call of Duty, and potentially move into a bigger space. When news broke earlier this year about the scholarship program, he received more than 400 inquiries. Team member Sondra Burrows read about the program on a blog and rushed to apply.

“I’m not going to say I’m the best girl who’s ever played League of Legends, but I will do whatever it takes to be the best for this team,” she says she wrote in her essay. “If I have to stay up all night to do it, I’ll do it.”

Watching the players practice, it seemed like that kind of commitment was the norm. Melcher wasn’t sure how the players would react to being brought together in a team environment, but he feels it’s coming together.

“Honestly, I hope more schools do come out with a League of Legends sports team that offers scholarships,” says Burrows. “This is a sport just like any other. We dedicate our time. It may not be physical strength, but it’s mental strength. We’re here four hours a day practicing. Your brain is clocking a million miles a second.”