Colleges increasingly catching the esports wave

When Robert Morris University started its varsity esports program a couple years ago, it set off a rush of schools looking to participate, too. This week's League of Legends College Championship has double the number of schools than it did just last year. Riot Games

University League of Legends has a long way to go to catch up with March Madness. But it does have a bracket and a rising profile across the United States and Canada.

Eight teams will compete for the LoL College Championship starting Thursday through the weekend at the North America LCS Arena in Santa Monica, California. That's double the amount of teams included in the first three years of this competition, and yet another sign of the growing popularity of esports at both the collegiate and professional level.

"Making it to this final eight -- it sounds cliché, but that's the goal," said Kurt Melcher, the esports executive director at Robert Morris University in Illinois. "And then, literally, you take it one series at a time and just try to build from there."

The eight remaining teams in the competition come from a wide range of colleges. Big state universities such as Texas A&M and Maryland are represented, along with smaller schools such as Maryville University and Carnegie Mellon.

Robert Morris -- not to be confused with the university of the same name in Pittsburgh, which has actually competed in March Madness as recently as 2015 -- can boast of being the first school in the U.S. to offer esports scholarships, back in 2014.

They have company now. For instance, UC Irvine not only offers esports scholarships, but also has a 3,500-square-foot esports arena on campus.

There was also a Big Ten League of Legends season-long competition this year, with the Big Ten Network televising the championship game.

Those Big Ten teams were club teams, however, as are the teams from Texas A&M and Maryland competing in Santa Monica this week. But the University of Utah recently announced the launch of a varsity esports program, becoming the first member of a Power Five conference to have one.

Utah has already begun recruiting players and plans to begin competing in League of Legends this coming fall.

"There [are] tons of metrics in gaming to figure out how good [players] are, and [then we] try to direct them to come to our school for an open tryout," said AJ Dimick, director of operations for esports at Utah. "And obviously, just like any other sport, if they are the kind of player that we would need to guarantee a scholarship for them to come here, we're perfectly willing to do that. We consider this a sport like any other."

Melcher, who also founded the esports program at Robert Morris, agrees. His program started with 35 students playing League of Legends but has now expanded to include 90 students playing five different games.

"They're not just coming and playing games," Melcher said. "We're actually instructing and teaching and educating them on how to be a better player, and on top of that a better teammate, which in my mind is almost the more important thing, because that speaks to character building."

The Robert Morris esports program is run by the athletics department -- you'll find it on the athletics website right alongside the pages for the baseball, basketball and football teams.

"We have access to trainers, and our strength and conditioning coach can work our team out -- not that it's the same ways that they're doing it for football," Melcher said. "But there's a real mind-body connection -- whether there's stress or strain on shoulders, wrists, elbows, they can see the trainers that we have. We have sport advisors that are able to schedule [the players' classes] and make sure that they're available for practice. It's just seamless in my mind."

Utah is taking a different approach, running their program through the Entertainment Arts & Engineering department.

"[The athletics department] helped us out quite a bit, as far as logistics, and they understand a lot more about the space -- about how recruiting would work and facilities and marketing and uniforms and things like that," Dimick said. "We get regular help from them. But that being said, the flip side of that, there's an authenticity issue with your audience, and we understand this audience and this space more than they do. And we wanted to make sure that we remain authentic to the core esports audience."

Nevertheless, Utah will treat its esports players like the other athletes at the school in many respects.

"They'll have a GPA requirement," Dimick said. "They'll have to have annual progress toward [a] degree. Because being an institution, we definitely want to send a message that these are students first, and this is a great collegiate activity, too, so that they can be part of the bigger college culture on campus."

However these programs are constructed, there's no question that interest is increasing. Melcher estimated that more than 100 colleges and universities have approached him since his program launched, asking for information and advice, including several Power Five schools.

"I can promise you, many, many schools are at least talking about it and thinking about it," he said.

The NCAA has not gotten involved, at least as of yet. And there are certainly some complicating factors. For instance, top esports players can make money via streaming and earn scholarships from third parties like Riot Games, which would clash with amateurism rules. There's also Title IX to take into consideration, given that collegiate esports has been male-dominated thus far.

Last year, the Pac-12 announced plans to begin esports competitions within the conference but has not followed through, perhaps for the reasons mentioned above. "The Pac-12 is not pursuing esports as a league at this time," wrote Erik Hardenbergh, senior vice president for public affairs at the Pac-12, in an email response to a query about the conference's esports plans. An NCAA spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Utah will restrict what its esports players can do, at least up to a point.

"They're students first, and we will impose amateurism rules on them," Dimick said. "When you're representing the university -- when you have the school marks across your chest and [are] representing yourself as a Utah player -- then you have to be an amateur."

"We are not gonna self-impose regulations past that," he added. "So when they are not representing themselves as our team player, or as individuals using the school colors or marks to promote themselves, then they are completely free, that's their concern from there."

At least for now, the game publishers themselves are running the main college competitions. Riot Games, the maker of League of Legends, is in charge of the College Championship (and partnered with the Big Ten Network for its segment of it).

Michael Sherman, the associate esports manager at Riot who coordinators the College Championship, sounds bullish about the tournament and the future of collegiate esports in general.

"I think we're really excited with the growth that we've seen just in the last 24 months," Sherman said. "Between schools like UC Irvine and Utah launching new varsity programs, as well as a lot of other Division III or private universities starting to launch their own varsity programs, as well.

"Two of the eight schools competing [this year] come from varsity programs, and the other six are really just strong schools in general. So we're just excited to see how things play out."

Four of the eight teams won regional competitions, Maryland advanced by winning the Big Ten competition, and the remaining three -- including Robert Morris -- advanced via wild cards.

There has been some money on the line. On the teams that won the four regionals, for instance, each player received $8,000 in scholarship funds from Riot -- another issue the NCAA would have to tackle. But now that we're down to the finals, the eight schools are playing for pride.

"It's about being the best team in North America," Sherman said. "This aligns pretty well with traditional athletics. We want this space to be about all the additional value that you get from playing for your college."

The same kind of thing is happening with other games, too. Blizzard Entertainment, the publisher of Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch and Hearthstone, has partnered with an organization called Tespa to stage large-scale competitions in those games.

Tespa started as an esports group at the University of Texas but has now expanded to include 220 chapters at schools all across North America. Last month, in the third edition of Heroes of the Dorm -- the Heroes of the Storm collegiate championship -- Texas-Arlington won the title, and its five players will receive full scholarships for the remainder of their college careers.

Adam Rosen, the co-president and founder of Tespa along with his twin brother, Kyle, is bullish about the future of collegiate esports, too.

"At Heroes of the Dorm [this year] we saw the top four teams each have significant support from their universities," Rosen said. "Universities would promote [the teams] through their official channels. Faculty from one of the schools flew out to the live event [in Las Vegas]. We had [university] presidents tweeting throughout the weekend at their teams, cheering them on. I think it really signaled the start of a new age for the rise of collegiate esports."

Where do we go from here? Well, don't be surprised if more Power Five schools like Utah launch varsity programs. In the meantime, the schools that already have esports programs will continue to participate in the competitions run by Riot and Blizzard.

If professional esports can sell out arenas like Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center, there's no reason to think it can't happen on college campuses, too.

May Madness? Hey, you never know.

"I think the biggest challenge for us is education," Rosen said. "One of the things that we've seen, as we've talked to university administrations, is that initially when people hear about esports, they might not get it, right? They hear 'esports,' they think gaming -- they think of students tied up in their dorm rooms or hiding in their parents' basements playing games 12 hours a day. The reality is that's not what esports is at all."

"I used to produce a sports radio show here in town and cover the Jazz and cover the Utes," Dimick said. "And as a guy who's been in both worlds, it's exactly the same thing, and everyone doesn't seem to know it yet."