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Virtually Gifted in Sports: Video Gaming Scholarships

4 Dec, 2014

By: Tracey Schelmetic
Robert Morris University Illinois Debuts New Financial Aid Program

When it comes to college scholarships, a line is often drawn in the sand between different types of college students: the nerds and the jocks. It’s an age-old rivalry that sees more athletically gifted students achieving athletic scholarships, while more academically inclined students compete for tuition dollars based solely on grades. A new program at Robert Morris University Illinois in Chicago, however, seeks to erase the line between the academic and the athletic: video gaming scholarships. The program, which was launched this fall, is the first of its kind in the nation.

On its face, the idea makes sense.  Video gaming, which can certainly be classified as a “leisure pursuit,” if not a sport, is expected to be worth $100 billion globally by 2017, according to Digi-Capital’s Global Games Industry Review. Robert Morris University Illinois recruited 35 students this year, and offered partial scholarships using money donated by sponsors, mostly corporate entities in the lucrative video gaming industry. According to a recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the college converted a computer lab into an “eSports Arena” that features high-end computer equipment, large monitors and ergonomic gaming chairs.

“The gamers play ‘League of Legends,’ a multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA, that groups players into teams in head-to-head battles,” wrote the Post-Gazette’s Michael Sanserino. “The game requires each player to take on certain roles with certain skills. The goal is to knock down an opponent’s tower before the opponent knocks down theirs. The two teams on Robert Morris’ varsity squad are undefeated this year, playing against college club teams in leagues.”

Other schools, such as Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, feature team video gaming as an extra-curricular club, and there is a busy college circuit of video gaming competition. While there is no shortage of criticism of the idea of video gaming athletic scholarships, it’s important to underscore just how big a business gaming is. Global revenue is on a stratospheric ascendance, and many popular MOBA-style games actually attract large numbers of spectators, both in arenas and online. The finals for “League of Legends’’ in 2013 sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles, according to the Post-Gazette. The 2014 finals were held in Seoul, South Korea and attracted more than 40,000 fans to a former World Cup soccer stadium. Gaming professionals, many of whom are considered “legends” among their fans, can earn high salaries from sponsorship deals and prize money.

While no one imagines that college video gaming teams are going to be earning money for the school the way that football and basketball can at the most prominent schools for those sports, it may be more about attracting a certain type of student to the campus. Skilled video gamers are often academic achievers and drawn to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studies, and are considered “problem solvers.”

Whether it’s a fad or a trend remains to be seen, but as long as corporate sponsors are handing out scholarship funding and cash to revamp university computer and gaming facilities, it seems likely that many colleges will be happy to accept the money. 

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