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The BTN Invitational - Visibility, growth and rivalry for college esports

The Big Ten Invitational will feature Michigan State taking on Ohio State. Riot Games

Universities across the country will have their eyes on Boston this weekend as collegiate-based League of Legends squads clash at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). Riot Games hosts its University League of Legends (uLoL) final in addition to teaming up with the Big Ten Network for an exhibition match between two of the conferences elite programs, Michigan State and Ohio State. While the matches will be streamed on both btn2go.com and lolesports.com, it's the rebroadcast on the Big Ten Network on Monday at 7 p.m. ET which will draw the most external attention. This is a significant step towards the growth and legitimization of collegiate esports.

Jordan Maleh, Director of Digital and Consumer Marketing at the Big Ten Network, says, "Even as an esports rookie, it's not hard to understand the massive esports audience, and I'm looking forward to better understanding the exposure and reaction from the BTN audience."

Maleh sees the opportunity as an "initial venture," but has hopes to going bigger and expanding in the future. "As a network, we aren't going to be dictating policies for universities and conferences, or even the NCAA, but we do feel that it's important to provide a platform for something that is happening not only on Big Ten campuses, but all over the world."

With the esports industry on track to breach the billion dollar mark by 2019, media entities can no longer sit idly as young fans across the country continue to consume video games. It's no longer something you have to play to enjoy. Maleh says that's the great thing about esports; it shares a lot of triggers with traditional sports that excite the fans.

"There are swings of momentum, tension, rivalries, comebacks, etc. From a programming standpoint, it's our job to find compelling and entertaining options for viewers, and that's what matters most to us. If it's not for you, we won't beat you over the head with it, but I would hope people have an open mind and learn more about the game and the industry before they dismiss it."

Of course, it's not all roses for the scene. To Nicolas Re, a third year Computer Science and Engineer student at Ohio State and head manager of the League of Legends team, esports has more ground to cover at the collegiate level.

"To me esports means a lot, but at times I feel that to the university as a whole it means very little," Re comments. "With so many other sports that OSU is proficient at and the limited amount of publicity our esports teams have had until recently, it has been difficult to gain support from our university when only a small group of people even know we have esports teams."

Regardless, Re says, the amount of support for the esports initiative is big, both from a competitive standpoint as well as from those who do not play the games.

Similarly, his counterpart at Michigan State, Connor Walsh, a senior studying History Education and manager of his team, says, "Esports at our university does not seem to be that well known, but it is well received by everyone who does know about it. We are linked to the MSU League of Legends Club that is on campus and they are our biggest supporters as well as our biggest critics, which seems to be how most fan bases work."

While the game and the scene may still be young, the participants in the invitational are household names, especially to traditional sports fans. Michigan State and Ohio State have developed an intense rivalry in the last decade thanks to their football and basketball teams dominating the conference. With the Big Ten Network shining a light on the scene, new and old fans alike will be able to rally behind their school's colors. As is apparent with major bowl games and march madness, casual fans will turn up in hordes when it comes to supporting their team. This event will be an opportunity for both teams to showcase the fervor which has captured tens of millions of League of Legends fans.

Re says that you only need to attend an esports event to understand the fervor behind it. "I think that our support and recognition will increase because of the BTN Invitational because it will allow us to reach a broader audience. Our team is already considered one of the top eight teams nationally, so I have high hopes for the future. Much like esports in general, our esports teams have received a lot of support from other entities outside of our university. Our team just recently acquired a sponsorship with SteelSeries."

Walsh believes the BTN Invitational will be a welcome boost of support for his team. He adds, "I think scholarships or real coaches would be awesome to have and really help grow the collegiate esports scene, especially if such a large university like MSU did it. Collegiate esports can definitely expand but it will take a very long time before it is able to be monetized in the same way as traditional sports, but esports fans are some of the most crazed and enthusiastic people I have ever met so the hype will definitely be there."

With their uLoL seasons being over and the school year soon coming to a close, this exhibition match isn't just a first for the esports scene. It's also the last match for some of these players. While the landscape continues to evolve around them, this will be an opportunity to punctuate their League of Legends careers. That their match will be televised, though, may perhaps provide them with enough support to make their time memorable.

And while television is mostly uncharted territory for esports, Maleh remains optimistic. "We certainly feel there is a place for [esports] on TV, but at this point I can say we aren't really sure how it will evolve, we're kind of learning right along with everyone else. There are some differences due to timing, length and structure that require a bit of adjustment for television. In my mind, the bottom line is if it's entertaining and there is an audience to support it, you find a way to make it work both digitally and on the linear network."

It's a big weekend for collegiate League of Legends. While the live audience won't be as numerous as a game at Ohio State's Horseshoe or Michigan State's Breslin Center, the players will know they are playing to the tune of hundreds of thousands of spectators-many of whom will be tuning in for the first time.