The top professional video gamers in the world can end up making hundreds of thousands of dollars thanks to lucrative sponsorship deals and cash prizes.
In June, Chicago-based Robert Morris University turned heads when it announced it would help some students get on track for a career in video gaming, offering scholarships for top gamers to join their varsity eSports team.
“I was approached by the school to recruit for the team,” head coach Ferris Ganzman said to Business Insider. “Basically what we were looking for were people who were competing at a high level, who were trying to get into the professional league.”
The team competes in “League of Legends,” a fast-paced game that anyone can download and play for free. Teams of four or five work together to invade enemy territory and beat challenges, similar to the traditional outdoor game capture the flag.
“League” is the most popular PC game in the world. As of January 2014, it had 27 million active daily players. It’s highly competitive, too — players who make it to the World Championships fight for a $US1 million prize and a 70-pound trophy. This year’s World Championships were held in a Seoul stadium where soccer World Cup games were played in 2002.
Robert Morris competes in the Collegiate Star League, an organisation made up of teams from 103 colleges and universities in the US and Canada. The college is the first to help gamers with their expenses, covering up to 50% of tuition fees and 50% of the cost for room and board for team members.
Of the 35 gamers on the team, 33 are male, and 2 are female. According to athletic director Kurt Melcher, applications and interest in the team skewed heavily male, at a rate of about 80 to 1, he estimated.
Getting a spot on the team was no easy feat, either.
“To make the top 30, you needed to have a good background in the game. For example, if you’re in the top 200 in the world, it was more likely that the coaches would accept you,” said Zixing Jie, a freshman gamer from Toronto, who plans to major in culinary arts. “Our coach
has had competitive coaching experience and has played on pro and amateur teams, so he had a hunch of who would be good.”
Many of the players on Robert Morris’ team say a pro gaming career would be a dream come true, and getting practice in collegiate play is a huge advantage.
“It’s definitely the end goal,” Adrian Ma, a freshman from Texas, said, adding that he’s already received two offers to play professionally.
“League is a full-time thing. Being able to go to school and have some of your expenses covered is big,” Derek Shao, a junior business major from Toronto, said.
Shao, along with junior Blake Soberanis and others on the 35-person team, transferred from a different school when Robert Morris announced it would be offering eSports scholarships.
“Our story isn’t unique, either. There were a lot of people in the program who also transferred,” Shao said.
Shao was one of several players on the team who was able to get a visa from the US government to play video games here. The US started recognising eSports players as professional athletes in July 2013, according to Forbes.
Though some will question the athlete designation, the eSports team puts in a ton of time perfecting their game. The smaller teams of five play together for four hours, four days of the week, plus individual practice time. All together, they could be spending some 30 to 40 hours a week playing League, in addition to taking a full course load.
“It can be difficult at times, but we have good support here with the coach and teammates,” Shao said. “It’s about managing time correctly.”
Plus, they get to practice in amazing facilities that the school opened just for the team this year. Sponsored by a number of gaming companies, including a majority sponsorship by iBUYPOWER, the school’s new eSports arena includes 30 computers, projection screens, and all of the latest gaming systems.
“They each have really nice seats,”Jie said. “All we have to do is play and perform.”
They even got gaming uniforms and practice gear as part of a sponsorship deal with eSports company
The season is still in its early stages, but the Robert Morris team is currently 2-0 after wins against the University of Kentucky and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“There’s a lot on the line,” Jie said. “It’s very intense, to say the least.”