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Be A Varsity Player ... In Video Games?

League of Legends is a video game with 70 million players a month.
Riot Games, Inc
League of Legends is a video game with 70 million players a month.

Imagine the lede in the campus newspaper:

The Eagles swept to a win last night in 100 hours of tournament gameplay. Tabbz made the absolute best usage of the shields and heals that were available to him. Froggen went for utility and pushing power, while Nyph's black shields were near perfect, and he hit a bunch of bindings. Airwak's Lee Sin kick ended the encounter with a massive multicolor explosion.

Monday morning quarterbacking will never be the same.

A private university in Chicago has become the first in the country to make video games a varsity sport. Robert Morris University-Illinois says it will offer between 45 and 50 athletic scholarships to competitive gamers who play an online, multiplayer battle-arena video game called League of Legends.

Kurt Melcher, the associate athletic director, has been a gamer himself. He says that in addition to the scholarships, which are worth about $19,000 each, the school will also be looking to hire a video game coach. (Unlike other team coaches, whose job is to get players to practice more and harder, Melcher told Inside Higher Edthat the job for a video game coach is to exhort the team to ease up on the all-night Red Bull marathons and actually include some balance in their lives.)

Why League of Legends? The game has 70 million players per month and was the most popular video game in the U.S. and Europe in 2012 in terms of hours played. It's a six-year-old descendant of the game Warcraft, featuring a loose medieval/fantasy/Asian theme.

Players spent $624 million last year on in-game purchases like "skins" to modify the look and powers of their "champions."

"LoL," as it's called by fans, is designed for large-scale competition, with players combining into teams to do virtual battle.

In many ways the move marks yet another step in the mainstreaming of video games, which in this context are also called e-sports, within education. There's already a Collegiate Star League dedicated to video gaming, with teams at 100 universities including MIT and the University of California, Berkeley. At some schools these are official student clubs, while at others they are informal groups of gamers. The RMU Eagles will be part of this league.

They'll be competing in a North American Collegiate Championship with $100,000 in scholarship prizes. The players are often drawn from a High School Star League, which includes 750 schools. And just as with other college sports, they will have a chance to join the major leagues--that is, Major League Gaming, which by coincidence, held its national championships in Anaheim, California this past weekend.

The connection to traditional sports raises some interesting questions. David Williamson Shaffer,a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert in educational games, says this is a sign of games as a growing "cultural phenomenon." He compares the move to what many high schools have done by turning debate into a letter 'sport.'

"It seems to me this fulfills the goals of the university as much as any varsity sport does," he said. "It provides support for students who have a passion and want to develop it toward mastery and excellence. It attracts students with talent to the university, and promotes the university through the achievements of those students." The promotional angle is clear here--Robert Morris University-Illinois, a school of 7000 students, reports it has received 70 applications and over 500 email inquiries since the announcement.

The only qualm Shaffer has, he said, is the existence of varsity sports in the first place, and the millions of dollars spent on them by universities around the country. "Whether it makes sense to award scholarships to an academic institution based on performance in a sport (whether electronic or not) is less clear."

In other words, if giving kids money to hit buttons on a controller seems strange, so is rewarding kids who are good at putting a ball through a hole.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
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