College recognizes video games as varsity sport
As a teenager, in his bedroom illuminated by the glow of his laptop, Youngbin Chung became addicted to video games. Ten-hours-a-day addicted.
His grades tanked. His parents fretted.
A few years later, the 20-year-old from the San Francisco area leads a team of headset-wearing players into virtual battle in a darkened room at a small private university in Chicago. He's studying computer networking on a nearly $15,000-a-year athletic scholarship for playing League of Legends. It's the very game that once jeopardized his high school diploma.
"I never thought in my life I'm going to get a scholarship playing a game," said Chung, one of 35 students attending Robert Morris University on the school's first-in-America video game scholarship.
Once regarded as anti-social slackers or nerds, gamers have become stars in what are now called esports. In professional leagues, they compete for millions of dollars in prizes and some pull in six-figure incomes. They pack thousands into sports stadiums around the world.
Games have evolved from the days of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong into something much more complex. They involve multiple players that communicate with each other in teams, plot strategy, predict opponents' moves and react in milliseconds.
Robert Morris, which has about 3,000 students, believes those are not so different from the skills one uses on a football field or a basketball court. Spending money to recruit these students, too, will enrich campus life and add to its ranks of high-achieving graduates.
"It's coming. It's coming big time," Associate Athletic Director Kurt Melcher said of the esports trend and what he's sure is its looming recognition by a bigger chunk of the collegiate sports world.
Hundreds of other colleges and universities have esports clubs, but Robert Morris are for a single video game, League of Legends. Teams of five on five use keyboards and mouses to control mythical fighters battling it out in a science fiction-like setting.
The first practices started last month in a $100,000 classroom outfitted with an expansive video screen, computers and eye-dazzling gaming paraphernalia.
The Robert Morris Eagles will play teams in two leagues that include Harvard and MIT, with hopes of making it to the League of Legends North American Collegiate Championship. Members of the first-place team take home $30,000 each in scholarships.
Melcher dreamed up the scholarship idea while searching online for the video games he used to play. The university already has scholarships for everything from bowling to dressing as the mascot.
Some 27 million people play League of Legends each day, according to developer Riot Games Inc.
This year's professional championship is Oct. 19 in Seoul at the stadium South Korea built to host the 2002 soccer World Cup. The 45,000 seats are expected to sell out. The top team will take home $1 million.
The traditional sports world is still trying to figure out what to make of the phenomenon.
ESPN has dabbled in esports coverage, but network President John Skipper recently declared it a non-sport.
"It's not a sport," he said. "It's a competition, right? I mean, chess is a competition, and checkers is a competition. ... I'm mostly interested in doing real sports."
Still, he added, "You can't really ignore it."
Critical thinking challenge: What advantage does Robert Morris University gain over other schools by making video games a varsity sport?