Esports Hits the Mainstream as Colleges Compete for Players

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If there’s one category of competitive sports that’s growing by leaps and bounds, it’s esports, competitive gaming that most often takes place within organized multiplayer video games. Just like physical sports, esports players range from amateur to professional, and with its rise in popularity, colleges and universities are starting their own esports programs.

Complete with scholarships and tournaments, these programs, which revolve around such video games as League of Legends, are quickly becoming important recruiting tools for schools. This weekend, eight teams will converge upon Los Angeles to compete in the League of Legends College Championship, advancing through four games until one remains to claim the title.

One of the competing teams, which qualified out of the wildcard tournament, represents Robert Morris University in Illinois. ModSquad is pleased to be one of the sponsors of the school’s esports teams. On the eve of this exciting event, we spoke with Jose Espin, RMU’s Esports Manager, to hear about the rise of the school’s esports program and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Tell us about how RMU established the first varsity college esports program.

RMU’s esports program was founded by Kurt Melcher. He saw the competitive sense within video games and where it was headed, and he believed that this was going to be just as big as sports. RMU believes that adding extracurriculars to your academics will help motivate students. So Kurt started the first varsity esports program,including a scholarship for sports talent, in 2014. We started with 35 students.

kurtmelcher

What advice do you have for other schools looking to establish a similar type of program? Any pitfalls to avoid?

At first, we basically just ignored our social media presence. That’s the reason we wanted to partner with ModSquad. In our first two years, we just had a staff member or student post on social for us, and it wasn’t consistent. We didn’t know where we were headed, and we were just making random posts. In our third year, we were able to partner with ModSquad, and it’s helped us tremendously. Now we understand where and how to grow our brand.

In the competitive sense, I’d recommend always having a structure, no matter what. With a lot of collegiate programs, they’re starting off with a random staff member becoming the coach. But it’s a difficult job; it has to be organized with a set structure. It’s not just, “Here are five computers, go play some games.”

What is the application process like for players?

We now offer scholarships for seven esports. We look at how good applicants are at a variety of skills. We know that not everyone is the top talent, but we want to give people opportunities. A lot of people want to go pro and aren’t able to, but they still want to be in the industry of esports. So we try to make that happen by integrating their academics within the program.

Now that esports has international recognition as a legitimate career path and sport, how do you see its relationship with traditional sports?

The main difference that everyone loves pointing out is that you’re sitting down, playing on a computer. But I see similarities in mentality. The best players are going to have a champion’s mind. Just as with soccer or basketball players, they’re dedicated, they’re going to play every day to be the best. Teamwork is another big similarity. A big issue is a lot of our players don’t come from traditional sports, so they’re not used to being in a team setting. You team up extroverted football players with introverted gamers and the personalities can clash. It’s an interesting experience, experimenting with techniques that work in traditional sports and tweaking them a bit for esports.

How did your team strategy change when support player Shady was drafted to the League of Legends Championship Series team Phoenix1?

It was a really big roadblock for us. It hit our morale immensely. It hurt our performance at the regionals, where we placed second when we lost to Maryville. But then we beat Maryville at Midwest Campus Clash.

RMU was knocked out of last round of qualifiers, but then swept the wildcard bracket, holding on to their championship placement. What’s the mood on the team like going into the League of Legends College Championship?

Let’s backtrack a little bit. The only prize money that’s given out is at the midseason regionals. So the main thing at regionals was how well they did and if we placed first or second, because that’s the money part. Now it’s just for pride. Our players want to play and help our brand and their own brand, because they all want to go pro. They want to put on a good show.

How important is it for college athletes to know about personal branding and a social code of conduct?

We try to explain to them that need to go out there and network. If you know the right people, then you get more opportunities. And we’re watching what they’re doing on social media, but there’s nothing too bad. Some people like to banter to create some intense storylines. That’s what we did between Maryville and RMU. It’s a friendly banter between two rival schools within the same region.

How has a strong social media presence impacted your team/program?

I think our social media presence has improved morale. In our first two years, a lot of people didn’t know who we were. Now, with our lively online presence, people are seeing what our program is. We’re still working on telling the story of what we do, and with our content increasing, it’s really hitting that goal for us.

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