Like most 20-year-old college students, Loc Tran needs money for tuition, books and a daily commute. Unlike most college students, Tran covers most of his education bills by playing a video game.
Tran is a member of the San Jose State Dream Team, which won $27,000 in scholarships last year at the first North American Collegiate Championship (NACC), a year-long league for Riot Games’ fantasy PC game “League of Legends.”
Like regular athletic leagues, the schedule is demanding: Three or four hours of league games in three separate tournaments plus practices up to 10 hours outside of that per week, said Tran, who lives in San Ramon.
“We play in tournaments every weekend,” Tran said. “The only breaks we get are on holiday weekends.”
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The NACC tournament is an example of how competitive gaming is taking root on college campuses, inspiring hopes of big-time scholarships and — for the lucky few — a chance for big money on the professional circuit. But local and national educators are debating how to classify e-sports — and whether their growth is detrimental to students’ academic pursuits.
While two Midwestern private colleges have decided to offer scholarships for competitive gamers, other college officials say they don’t see the NCAA opening the doors to competitive gaming — and don’t want to spend valuable athletic funds to make gaming a sport.
At Fresno State, school officials say video game tournaments come under the umbrella of club activities, not campus sports — and there appears to be little interest in making them competitive intercollegiate sports.
Frank Lamas, vice president of student affairs at Fresno State, said he doesn’t see the growth of collegiate gaming as a bad thing.
“We want students to get involved, engaged and connected on campus,” Lamas said. “We want them to have a sense of belonging, and that means different things for each individual.”
Fresno State had a registered “League of Legends” club last year called Fresno State Nexus, although the club now appears to be dormant. The club organized several tournaments, including one last April that involved five teams of five players competing in Fresno State’s Henry Madden Library.
Lamas said transitioning it into a college sport would be extremely difficult.
Because Fresno State is a member of the Mountain West Conference in Division I of the NCAA, any school sports must first satisfy requirements of both the conference and the NCAA before being adopted by the school.
Even if those requirements were met, Lamas said that wouldn’t necessarily cement gaming as a Fresno State sport.
“We’d have to ask ourselves if this (collegiate gaming) fits what we want to do as an institution and if we want to spend our precious money on it,” Lamas said.
Andy Johnson, director of undergraduate admissions at Fresno Pacific University, said that he wasn’t aware of any gaming clubs affiliated with the university.
“I think it (collegiate gaming) is an interesting trend,” Johnson said. “One hundred years ago, athletics was in this same position. Some colleges participated, and others didn’t. Now they all do.”
Riot publishing specialist Michael Sherman said that Riot has not contacted the NCAA about making gaming a sport, nor does it plan to.
“Things will happen organically,” Sherman said. “Schools are already doing it on their own, and that will drive up the demand. We don’t feel like we need to ask them for anything.”
College tournaments account for a huge portion of Riot-backed competitions, which typically receive prizes such as in-game items and currency from the publisher in exchange for following a specific set of rules. Sherman said the NACC tournament is a way for the company to give back to many of its core supporters.
“Riot is paying for college,” Sherman said. “We’re able to support a player’s education. The prize money is not life-changing until you apply it to college.”
The 2014 NACC awarded $100,000 in scholarships. This year’s tournament will conclude in April or May and will shell out $300,000 in scholarships — including $30,000 for each of the winning team’s five players. Second place finishers will each receive $15,000, and third place players will get $7,500.
According to Sherman, the NACC grew from several smaller collegiate gaming leagues already running “League of Legends” tournaments. These leagues have formed a partnership with Riot to create one super-league with a uniform set of rules.
The tournament is open to all students of accredited two- or four-year colleges in the U.S. and Canada. Strict eligibility requirements are enforced throughout the NACC. All five members must attend the same school for both semesters of the school year.
Each of the four sister leagues — IvyLoL, Collegiate StarLeague, TeSPA and WellPlayed — still hold their usual seasons. IvyLoL and the Collegiate StarLeague seasons run from October to January. Registration for the much shorter TeSPA league closed Feb. 13. But players have until March 5 to sign up for the WellPlayed tournament. Each tournament separates its entrants by their location, and the teams battle it out online. All four leagues will send four winners — one from each of four geographic regions — to Riot’s NACC.
Two small private colleges that are members of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) have decided to make “League of Legends” a college sport, but it still is not sanctioned by the NAIA.
In June, Robert Morris University in Chicago announced it would offer scholarships covering up to half of tuition and living costs for members of its new varsity “League of Legends” team. Associate athletic director Kurt Melcher said that 20 students are receiving the maximum scholarship, valued at $19,000 per academic year.
Melcher said the top team of students, known as the RMU Eagles, recently won the Collegiate StarLeague’s north region, which qualifies the team for the NACC tournament.
How could video games be classified as a sport?
“There’s certainly no cardiovascular element in e-sports, but it does require a high level of skill and teamwork,” Melcher said. “It’s dangerous to start classifying sports only by the level of cardiovascular activity. Is football more of a sport than golf just because there’s running?
Melcher conceded, though, that e-sports will have a tough climb to make it to the NCAA. He added that e-sports may not belong there at all, saying that he favored the creation of a brand new association — perhaps associated with science and technology grants — that could shepherd competitive gaming on its own.
At least one other school has followed suit. Last month, the University of Pikeville in Kentucky announced it would be the second school to offer scholarships for “League of Legends.” Bruce Parsons, the university’s new media director, told The Associated Press that Pikeville will offer 20 scholarships to players and that teams will begin competitive play in the fall.
Students from several California colleges compete in the NACC. This year’s Collegiate StarLeague qualifying tournament had 32 teams from public, private and community colleges in the state. The team from University of California at Irvine made it all the way to last year’s NACC semifinals, where it lost to the eventual champions from the University of Washington.
California’s best team, Tran’s San Jose State squad, does not receive support from the university. Tran said the team is recognized as an official club, but the Dream Team relies on sponsorships for funding.
For the best and brightest of these collegiate e-sports stars, an impressive NACC showing could lead to a professional career.
Sherman said a great NACC showing could serve as a springboard for top collegiate players into Riot’s professional league, the League of Legends Championship Series. Like college football stars, e-sports players have a shot at some serious cash at the next level. Last year, Riot awarded more than $2 million in total prize money to the top 16 teams at its annual League of Legends World Championship.
Weighing the merits
Fresno educators are still weighing the merits of competitive gaming.
Fresno Pacific’s Johnson said he doesn’t see gaming falling under the athletics department umbrella at Fresno Pacific anytime soon, but he wouldn’t be surprised if a student-run organization competed for scholarships in the near future.
Lamas, with Fresno State, said he supported the growth of competitive gaming as a pastime for local students, provided it meets several requirements.
“I don’t see it as a bad thing at all, as long as it isn’t gambling related or something students get addicted to,” Lamas said. “And of course it shouldn’t affect their academics.”
Robert Heinrich, who teaches video game design in Sanger High School’s Digital Technology Department, said that many of his students consider “League of Legends” to be their main hobby. Heinrich added that scholarships are “just another perk” for the students who already spend most of their time playing the game in hopes of climbing the international rankings.
While Heinrich believes the concept of collegiate gaming is great, he argues it’s not yet a worthwhile scholarship goal.
“Students that are at the national and international level (in “League of Legends”) are devoting so much time that a student would be far more likely to receive a scholarship if they spent that time studying for classes or preparing for the SATs.”