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The New Jocks on Campus

Chicago’s Robert Morris University is the first college in the country to make video games a varsity sport.

Photo: Dave Rentauskas

Surreal? You haven’t seen surreal until you’ve seen an ESPN producer, a cameraman, and a giant bearded guy holding a boom mike trying to get five slight and slouching video gamers in matching black jerseys to look like invincible ass-kicking warriors.

One player’s hands seem to want to stay in the pockets of his warmups; another player’s flip-flops keep dragging on the floor. Multiple pairs of glasses get adjusted. All told, the attempt at a heroic battle march down the hallway of a building in the Loop looks more like a tentative shuffle to the bathroom. “Let’s try that again,” the amused producer says. There are three more takes before he gets the footage he needs. Then he launches into individual interviews with Robert Morris University’s gamer dream team.

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All five players came to the Chicago campus on sports scholarships to compete in League of Legends, which has become one of the world’s most popular online video games. Robert Morris is the first school in the nation to offer scholarships for gamers.

Having just thrashed the University of Kentucky in the season opener, the team proceeds to spout sports clichés left and right: “We didn’t underestimate them.” “We had a good plan and executed ours better than they did.” One by one, the players head back into the university’s e-sports arena to get their stuff. Then they go out for sushi.

 

What’s going on here? A revolution, that’s what, and ESPN wants to televise it. These five guys—along with 30 other scholarship teammates, six coaches, two athletic directors, and one open-minded university president—are not simply blowing shit up on the third floor of a Loop building. They’re blowing shit up in the college sports world.

A five-on-five multiplayer battle game, League of Legends begins with players picking characters with names like Blitzcrank and Nocturne, each with his or her own strengths and intricate backstory. Then they fight for control of a fantasy world—casting spells, amassing gold, dodging jungle monsters, and working together to destroy the enemy’s home base. With its endless characters and variations, it may be incomprehensible to newbies, but to hardcore gamers, it’s the ultimate strategic rush and an opportunity for unlimited creativity. More than one player has called the game a five-on-five chess match.

The numbers are ridiculous: On any given day, 27 million people (about 10 times the population of Chicago) play League of Legends; every month, 67 million active players duke it out. The money is no joke, either. Riot Games, the video game publisher in Santa Monica, California, that introduced League of Legends in 2009, now racks up estimated annual revenues of $1 billion. (The game itself is free—and always will be, swears Riot Games. The company makes money mostly by selling tons of special add-ons for the players’ avatars, such as outfits, or “skins,” which range from $3 to $23.) Amazon recently spent $970 million to buy Twitch, a website that streams Legends matches. In October, the game’s world championship sold out Sangam Stadium in Seoul, South Korea—the same stadium that hosted 2002 FIFA World Cup matches—where 40,000 screaming fans watched 10 competitors between the ages of 17 and 21 play a video game shown on Jumbotrons. Thirty-two million people around the world watched the previous year’s finals, held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, online. That’s more than twice the number who watched the average 2014 World Series game.

So League of Legends has gone beyond a subculture and entered into mainstream culture. Fine. But collegiate athletic scholarships? Has Robert Morris University positioned itself at the forefront of a cultural phenomenon in which e-sports slowly phase out traditional sports? Or has the school gone completely crazy? A not-for-profit private university with 10 campuses across Illinois, Robert Morris provides what it calls “hands-on” and “career-focused” education. It’s also a quirky, nontraditional school that awards scholarships for bowling, dance, and painting. The university advertises its flagship Chicago campus—located in a landmark eight-story building at the corner of State Street and Congress Parkway—with a hip-hop video.

In other words, if you’ve got an idea for a program, no matter how out there it seems, someone at the university will listen. And Kurt Melcher, the school’s associate athletic director, had an idea. A soccer goalie for the University of Illinois at Chicago in the early 1990s, Melcher, 45, has been the women’s soccer coach at Robert Morris since 1995. He definitely fits the mold: short hair, muscular build, firm handshake. He also grew up with video games, playing them into his college years. After soccer practices at UIC, he and his buddies held tournaments that lasted all night.

Last April, Melcher learned that StarCraft II, the sequel to a strategic fantasy video game he once loved, was being played competitively in tournaments around the world. “I felt like I’d missed out,” he says.

More exploration led Melcher to League of Legends. The sheer size of the game’s following dumbfounded him: Thousands of high school, college, and professional teams around the world competed in organized leagues, sometimes for real money. These leagues streamed live matches in ESPN-style broadcasts. Personalities blossomed. Rivalries materialized. Controversies festered. And he’d never even heard of it.

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Melcher downloaded the game and found elements similar to those in team sports: speed, flexibility, cooperation, and cutthroat competition. That’s when it hit him: Why couldn’t Robert Morris offer League of Legends scholarships? He and the athletic director, Megan Smith Eggert, put together a formal proposal and took it to the university’s president, Michael Viollt.

If anyone would go for it, it would be Viollt. A Brighton Park native and the son of a CTA bus driver, Viollt thinks so far out of the box that he’s expressed interest in giving scholarships for BMX biking and skateboarding. (The school is still considering both.) “We’re open to anything,” says Viollt, 63, a robust grandfatherly type. “I don’t care if it’s chess club or ice fishing—being involved will make students more successful beyond college.”

But when Melcher and Smith Eggert said they wanted to talk about video games, Viollt laughed. “I thought it was being presented as a joke,” he recalls. “A lot of presidents would have told them to get out of the office.”

Melcher described how League of Legends had cultivated a worldwide following and how the school would recruit players. He explained which other colleges— including, locally, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern, and DePaul—Robert Morris would be playing against in the Collegiate Starleague, a burgeoning association of 300-plus schools, from UCLA to Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He even pulled out an iPad to show Viollt the game, joking that this must have been the first proposal of all time to use the word “summoner.”

 
The RMU A-Team. Clockwise from left: freshman Zing Jie, junior Derek Shao, freshman Youngbin Chung, and junior Blake Soberanis. Photos: Dave Rentauskas

Three weeks later, Melcher got the green light. The athletic department would provide 35 scholarships to cover up to half of tuition and room and board (worth $19,000 a year) for varsity and junior varsity League of Legends teams. Now the staff had just three months to find players, convince them to come to Robert Morris, and figure out where to put them. And who would coach them.

Melcher approached Riot Games for advice. The company recommended Ferris Ganzman, a recent Loyola University graduate who had remotely coached a professional League team in Sweden while in school. Ganzman, 23, a gangly former high school tennis and basketball player who now repairs hospital equipment for Siemens, jumped at the opportunity to assemble a team. He targeted collaborative players whose ambitions extended beyond League. “There are a lot of talented, gifted players out there,” says Ganzman. “I wanted people who are happy but also serious about the game.”

When Riot Games agreed to promote Robert Morris’s program to its rabid fan base, the company told Melcher to be prepared for an onslaught. And that’s what he got. With Riot’s clout, Ganzman’s connections, and a much-read post on Reddit, word spread fast, far, and wide. More than 7,000 e-mails flooded in from all over the world: Brazil, Egypt, China, Central America. Many came from South Korea, where League of Legends is practically a national pastime.

The team lured nationally ranked amateurs like Adrian Ma, a 17-year-old from Houston who was already a star in gaming circles, and Derek Shao, a native of Toronto, who packed three bags and flew to Chicago, then got a loan from his grandmother to pay for it. Youngbin Chung, who relocated from Seoul to the San Francisco area in 2010 and learned English by talking with other players on Skype, turned down a pro career to attend Robert Morris. Kenneth Ling, a top gamer from Östersund, Sweden, saw an ad in a Swedish newspaper and applied. One month and untold amounts of red tape later, Ling was living in a dorm in the Loop.

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Ganzman handpicked five assistant coaches, including Jason Greenglass, a general practice attorney and a longtime gamer, and Ryanne Mohr, the host of an online talk show about China’s professional league.

While the response skewed overwhelmingly male, Melcher and Ganzman also sought out female players. Since men have no physical advantage in the game, Melcher theorized that women, if given the same instruction, should have comparable skills.

Sondra Burrows, a freshman from Murrieta, California, and one of the team’s two women, learned of the scholarships while scrolling through a League of Legends tag on Tumblr. Making the team represented a moment of vindication for Burrows, who endured years of denigration from parents and peers for dedicating too much of her life to a fantasy video game. “My parents and family thought that all the time I spent on the computer was a huge waste of time until now,” says Burrows, the first member of her family to receive a college scholarship. “My aunt told me, ‘Most people aren’t able to say “I told you so” until very late in their lives, but you’re able to say it now. ’ ”

Meanwhile, Melcher had a simple plan for the gaming arena: He wanted it badass. “I said from the start, ‘I don’t want the room to be like a computer lab. Let’s make it awesome.’ ”

He took Robert Morris bigwigs to Ignite Gaming Lounge, an industrial spot in Avondale with more than a hundred computers and console games, track lighting, tiered black desks, and ergonomic DXRacer chairs. Everyone agreed: Let’s rip off that look. (Flattered, Ignite’s operator, Sam Oanta, offered suggestions.) The university spent $100,000 from its athletic budget and partnered with e-sports companies such as Asus, iBuypower, Cooler Master, and PWNiT Wear, all of which provided products or cost consideration, to transform a business school classroom into a sleek red-and-black gaming nirvana. If the el didn’t roar past beyond the shaded windows, you’d swear you were in NASA’s mission control center. Safe to say, no other team in the Collegiate Starleague has anything like this facility. Most compete from dorm rooms.

 

For all the money and effort Robert Morris has put in, anything short of a title run would be disappointing. If the varsity team finishes at the top of its division and then wins the regional tournament January 18 and 19, the players could find themselves competing for the North American Collegiate Championship in Los Angeles in the spring. At presstime, the team was 6–0 and tied for first place in its division. If they win the national championship, the five members of the dream team will each earn $30,000 in additional scholarships. (The NACC is unaffiliated with the NCAA, which means players can make money.)

“I think our top players feel pressure, especially now that everyone is gunning for us,” says Melcher. “But they can’t wait. They’re like, ‘Let’s go. We’re gonna roll these teams.’ ”

 

It’s game day, a Saturday afternoon in October, and Robert Morris’s e-sports arena is subdued. No marching band. No cheerleaders. No Gatorade. And no opponents to be seen: Though four squads compete simultaneously, the foes are in Philadelphia; Lexington, Kentucky; Ames, Iowa; and across town at DePaul. About 2,000 people are watching, but you can’t see them, either, because they’re all online, streaming the match on Twitch.

In one corner, Robert Morris’s five best players sit side by side in front of their computers, trying to ignore the ESPN cameras and mikes in their faces. On the end, Youngbin Chung can’t stop tapping his foot. With his team eyeballs-deep in battle, Chung, in a Robert Morris Eagles jersey, backward hat, and big glasses, looks at ease. Under the desk, he’s jiggled his bare feet out of his flip-flops. “I just wanted to be comfy,” he says.

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The skinny 20-year-old wears headphones and talks to his teammates through TeamSpeak, a software program that puts each team on a private five-person channel. They chatter constantly, though most of it is incomprehensible to outsiders. “Top’s flash is down, he’s diveable,” one player says quietly. “OK, coming,” another responds. Ganzman paces behind his gamers, taking notes but generally leaving them alone.

Apart from the jittery foot, Chung barely moves. A few clicks here, a few keystrokes there, eyes darting about. But the action on the screen—a bedlam of whirling colors and explosions—tells a different tale. Chung and his crew are killing minions. Casting spells. Collecting gold and engaging in battles on the Field of Justice to destroy their enemy’s Nexus. This is a team of slouching assassins, their minds weighing thousands of possibilities, their fingers taking nimble dictation, striking, recalculating, and striking again in milliseconds. And they are crushing their opponent.

“It’s just a matter of Fizz being out-jungled early,” one of the giddy commentators says on the game’s video stream. Whatever that means, you can’t help but feel sorry for poor Fizz. “This is a dominant team like we expected RMU to be,” gushes the other commentator.

“Come here, boys, and sit in my little tower!” bellows a junior varsity player across the room, which, in any language, sounds like trash talk.

Within 70 minutes, Robert Morris has swept the best-of-three series. No handshakes or high-fives are exchanged; instead, players wander out to the hallway for a postgame debrief with Ganzman about what went wrong (nothing) and what went right (basically everything). Then they dutifully answer the ESPN reporter’s questions (“How far do you think this team can go?”) and try to be modest about the blowout.

It may sound easy. Fun, even. But Chung and his teammates practice more than seven hours a day to get to this level, juggling schoolwork and social lives like any other student-athletes. As on the soccer or basketball team, if your GPA dips below 2.0, you’re off the team. Periodically, Melcher sees players in the gaming arena at 10 a.m. and shoos them off to class. What they do in the dorm is their business.

For Zing Jie, who on this October afternoon sits two seats down from Chung, finding a balance between 50-plus hours a week of gaming and a full academic schedule is difficult, especially with ESPN photo shoots and the like interrupting classes. A freshman in Robert Morris’s culinary program, Jie, 20, wants to open a restaurant in his hometown of Shenyang, China, but he also has an offer from a professional Legends team in California. (Most gamers peak in their early to mid-20s, says Melcher.) “My parents want me to finish school, but they support me in whichever decision I make,” says Jie, whose family moved to Toronto when he was six.

If he goes pro, Jie could make more than $100,000 a year; the world’s very best players, such as Chen “Hao” Zhihao, who plays for Newbee, a Chinese Dota 2 team, earn seven figures. The pro circuit makes no guarantees—teams fold, sponsorships dry up, games become obsolete—but the temptation, particularly for 20-year-olds, persists.

A month after the October tournament, Adrian Ma, a teammate of Jie’s, joined LMQ-iBuypower, a well-known Chinese team competing in the North American League Championship Series, one of the top leagues in the world. In making this choice, Ma is not unlike the NCAA’s “one-and-done” players, who leave college early to chase pro careers. “The opportunity was just too good to let it pass,” says Ma. “I knew school would always be here for me, so I decided to live my dreams and do what I loved most: playing games all day.”

Robert Morris obviously wants its student-players to graduate, but replacing Ma wasn’t hard. Melcher offered a scholarship to Jesus Coll, a world-class player from Argentina who had previously expressed interest in the school. And next year, Viollt reports, the school’s e-sports program could add 150 more scholarships, which means the program will also have added more games—maybe Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a fast-paced fantasy game, or Dota 2, another multiplayer battle game. This surprises no one at Robert Morris. “People here know that once we make a decision, we stick it out,” says Melcher. “And we work hard to make sure it works.”

 

So is gaming a sport? That’s the question facing the whole industry. The pioneers at Robert Morris—the ones paddling the boat in the middle of a sea change—have to answer it every single day. Yes, it’s a sport, most players respond patiently, if slightly defensively, and they often wonder why they can’t just play in peace. “We may not be out throwing a ball around, but we practice for a minimum of four hours a day, scrimmaging, watching replays, working on mechanics, and strengthening team play,” says Burrows. “I played soccer and swam in high school, and the environment of this program doesn’t seem any different from any of the programs I was in.”

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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a sport is an “activity involving physical exertion and skill . . . in which an individual or team competes against another or others.” By those standards, you’d be hard-pressed to call League of Legends a sport. But one could argue those standards no longer apply. “In the next 20 years, we could very well see digital sports surpass traditional sports,” says Chris Kluwe, a former NFL punter and an avid gamer. “The NFL, with its concussions and drug use . . . a lot of people won’t choose to play it. And they may choose e-sports instead.”

The definition of sports is ever evolving. Today’s Olympic athletes compete in archery, sailing, and curling; once upon a time, something called club swinging was an Olympic event. This country’s national pastime involves using a tapered wooden club to hit a cork and rubber ball wrapped in yarn and covered with cowhide; but if that’s not your taste, you could join millions of Americans every Sunday during the fall and winter to watch grown men strap on pads and chase a cowhide prolate spheroid around. Both of these games must have seemed silly when they were first played.

If baseball, football, and basketball are the standard-bearers for sports, could their dominance be obscuring the fact that the vessel for competition is shifting from the body to the mind? “A lot of people are hung up on the physicality of sports,” says Kluwe, who compares the hand-eye coordination of an elite League of Legends player to that of a major-league baseball player. “Gaming is just a different kind of sport, and the people who say it’s not haven’t adjusted to the direction that the world is going.”

Even those disseminating and profiting from e-sports can’t seem to get their heads around it. “It’s not a sport—it’s a competition, right?” John Skipper, ESPN’s president, said at a conference in New York in September. “I’m mostly interested in doing real sports.” (Skipper must’ve forgotten that less than two months earlier his network had streamed the finals of an $11 million tournament for Dota 2 on ESPN3.)

For what it’s worth, in 2013 the State Department, an agency not generally known for its progressive stances, recognized League of Legends as a professional sport—sort of. Video gamers from other countries can now work in the United States under the same visas created for MLB, NFL, NBA, or NHL athletes.

In South Korea and, increasingly, in California—a hotbed for die-hard gamers—the best pros get treated like celebrities. Many teams live together in tricked-out houses, where private chefs cook their meals while they practice 16 hours a day. They’re surrounded by managers, agents, and handlers, and they try to avoid their many groupies. Companies constantly dangle endorsements and sponsorships and pay players to stream their practice games.

When Robert Morris introduced its e-sports program, Viollt took plenty of flak from fellow university presidents, none he’ll name, who called it a publicity stunt intended to draw more students. He responded that he only wanted to encourage participation. “I could just be giving kids scholarships and wouldn’t have to pay money to hire coaches,” Viollt says. “I like to say that we brought a lot of students out of the basement.”

But Melcher received the brunt of the criticism, much of it from angry sports fans. He also got an earful from outraged athletes such as Daniel Steinhauser, a sophomore at the University of Colorado Boulder, who couldn’t land a college tennis scholarship despite winning a state title in high school.

“Male tennis programs around the country are being dropped,” says Steinhauser, 19. “When you include e-sports, this makes it even harder for people who are actually athletically gifted and have put in the energy and time to be healthy and aspire to goals and ambitions—not just sitting in front of a computer screen. Hopefully, scholarships will not be handed out to these kids and taken away from hardworking athletes.”

(It bears mentioning that Robert Morris didn’t cancel any programs to add e-sports. Then again, the school has no men’s tennis program.)

Last July, when ESPN2 previewed the Dota 2 finals, Twitter lit up with angry comments. “What is this they got some world of Warcraft shit on ESPN2 this isn’t a sport!!!!!!! None of these people are anywhere near athletic,” read one tweet, and there were thousands more like it.

Melcher isn’t surprised: “You know who this upsets? 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.”

Perhaps the best indicator for the future, though, comes from Robert Morris’s traditional athletes, who don’t sound too threatened. “I think it’s kind of cool for RMU to be the first school to give video game scholarships,” says Greg Travis, the starting point guard on the men’s basketball team. “It’s cool to see the dudes walking around with the gear and in the arena doing their thing.”

Whether one reads this as a genuine welcome to the club or a patronizing pat on the head, it’s certainly a more enlightened reaction than you’d expect. Either way, it doesn’t affect Jie or Chung or anyone else currently clicking away in the e-sports arena. They aren’t interested in firing the first shots of a revolution or converting the uninitiated. Nor do they wish to destroy tennis or basketball or any other physical sport. In the end, they only want what every athlete wants: to compete.

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