Expanding the meaning of ‘student athlete’ through eSports

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Educational institutions across the United States are embracing a new group of student athletes who don’t use helmets, balls or bats but favor headsets, keyboards and gaming mice.

On June 11, Robert Morris University—Illinois became the first American university to add eSports, or competitive video gaming, to its lineup of varsity sports and hopes other schools will follow its lead.

Rizwan Mohammed, a student at the University of utah studying computer science, heads the UofU League of Legends club. (Courtesy Rizwan Mohammed)
Rizwan Mohammed, a student at the University of Utah studying computer science, heads the UofU League of Legends club. (Courtesy Rizwan Mohammed)

“We’re proud to be the first school with this type of program and look forward to seeing eSports grow in the coming years,” said Kurt Melcher, the university’s associate athletic director in charge of the eSports program.

RMU recognizes the opportunities for financial assistance, social development and mental stimulation available to its more traditional athletes and sees its new eSports program as a way to make those same opportunities available to a group of students who historically did not have equal access to them.

“The program will provide scholarships and validation for students at our university who have traditionally been underserved,” Melcher said. “It gives more of them the opportunity to develop pride in their school and to gain a valuable extracurricular education.”

This fall RMU will join the Collegiate Star League, a competitive collegiate eSports league boasting competitive teams from more than 100 colleges and universities in North America, with the feeling that its unique commitment to its eSports program and athletes could lead to immediate success.

“We want to be as competitive as we can right off the bat, and we hope we can attract students who will help us do that in our first year competing in college eSports,” Melcher said. “Since we announced the program a couple of weeks ago, we’ve received well over 1,000 emails from interested gamers from all over who want more information about our school and the program. Now we just have to sort through them all to find the best fits.”

The first game RMU’s varsity eSports team will be playing is League of Legends, a free-to-play online video game in which two five-player teams compete against each other to complete a variety of objectives and achieve victory by completing all the necessary objectives faster than the opposing team.

“We chose to start with League of Legends because of its global popularity and the sheer number of people who actively play it,” Melcher said.

Today League of Legends is played by more than 70 million people worldwide and is the most-played video game in the United States.

Professional League of Legend games are also the most watched eSport in the world today, with last year’s professional League of Legends World Championship Series attracting more than 32 million viewers.

To put that number in perspective, those are more people than have watched any NBA Finals or MLB World Series Game in more than a decade, and more viewers than tuned in to the most-watched BCS National Championship Game of all time. And last year was only the third year of the championship series.

“ESports is a growing industry,” Melcher said. “We’re happy to be involved.”

Also happy to be involved in eSports are students at the University of Utah, thanks to the efforts of Rizwan Mohammed.

Mohammed, from Taylorsville, is a junior studying computer science at the University of Utah, and has a love for League of Legends and a desire to share it with others.

“When I got to school, I was happy to find there were a ton of people who enjoyed playing League of Legends as much as I did and some who were really good, “ Mohammed said.

Encouraged by the number of likeminded individuals he discovered, Mohammed spearheaded the formation of an official League of Legends club through the school’s student association, became the club’s first president and worked with the school and members of his club to establish a competitive club team.

“It took a little work to get the ball rolling, but it’s been an amazing experience,” Mohammed said. “My involvement with League of Legends here has let me help build a community here in which people with similar interests can come together to build relationships and become involved in something that gives us pride in ourselves and our school.”

The club team has participated in a number of competitive leagues since its inception in February 2013 and is currently a member of the Collegiate Star League, competing in tournaments with other collegiate teams from around the country.

Mohammed is pleased with the current condition of his club and team but admits that the future of his team at the university could be in jeopardy.

“Unlike Robert Morris University, we don’t yet have a way to ensure our team will have enough quality players once some of us have left,” Mohammed said. “Incoming freshmen could have trouble finding us if we don’t find them first.”

He feels building strong eSports communities in local schools can solve this problem, and one BYU student thinks is worth trying in Utah County.

Michael Center, a 27-year-old teaching student at BYU who works at Orem Junior High School, will be the faculty advisor for the school’s first League of Legends team.

Since it will be the only junior high team around, the eSports team at Orem Junior High will not have anybody outside its school to play against, yet.

“The team will likely be organized more like an after-school intramural league, with a number of small teams at the school competing with each other,” Center said. “I think there’s a good chance we’ll have enough interest to field a good number of teams at the school alone, so the kids will have plenty of opportunities to compete.”

Center anticipates his eSports team will be successful and hopes its success will encourage other local junior high and high schools to form teams of their own in the future.

“This first year is intended to be very research based, to see what works and what doesn’t,” Center said. “The goal is to get support from a bunch of schools in the Alpine School District and get competitive play happening between a number of schools within the next few years, especially on the high school level.”

Center suspects local schools will want to get onboard once they see how eSports are able to give some students who are not as interested in traditional sports the opportunity to develop social skills, learn discipline and take pride in their accomplishments.

“Studies show you can get the same social and psychological benefits from playing cooperative video games as you do from playing team sports,” Center said. “This program is intended to reach those disenfranchised kids who want to be involved but who aren’t interested in or good at sports, or music, or theater, but who enjoy gaming.”

Center imagines a day when eSports games are broadcast on network television and eSports athletes become high school heroes and household names.

“I don’t think it’s that big of a stretch, especially with the growing popularity of games like League of Legends,” Center said. “I’m not saying it’s gonna happen, but I think if eSports keep getting bigger, I could definitely see it happening.”

At the University of Utah, Mohammed longs for a similar future and invites other universities in Utah to assist him in making that future a reality.

“It would be great for schools like USU and BYU to get their own communities going, and we’re happy to help them,” Mohammed said. “Until they do, they’re welcome to join in our community here.”

Mohammed believes students who love eSports at the various schools in Utah should work together in eSports instead of in opposition, as is common in most other endeavors.

“What we need is to build a strong eSports community throughout the region so the sport can thrive and support itself here in the future,” Mohammed said. “It’s not about resentment or competition right now as much as it is about like-minded individuals working for a cause they all believe in.”

He hopes students at BYU with similar interests will take the initiative to start a team of their own in the near future.

“Starting a team is easy to do,” he said. “It just takes somebody with a little bit of time and a love for the game to make it happen.”

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