College recognizes video games as varsity sport
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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. He is 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. The video gaming is called esports. In professional leagues, they compete for millions of dollars in prizes. They can 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. Today they involve multiple players communicating with each other in teams. The squads plot strategy, predict opponents' moves and react in milliseconds.
Robert Morris has about 3,000 students. School officials believe that spending money to recruit these students 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.
Hundreds of colleges and universities have esports clubs, but Robert Morris is the first to recognize it as a varsity sport. It's all to play a single video game, League of Legends. Teams of five use keyboards and mouses to control mythical fighters that battle in a science fiction-like setting.
The first practices started last month in a $100,000 classroom. It's fitted 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. The goal is to make it to the League of Legends North American Collegiate Championship. Members of the first-place team take home $30,000 each in scholarships.
Melcher of Robert Morris 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.
Critical thinking challenge: What advantage does Robert Morris University gain over other schools by making video games a varsity sport?