Making varsity: Collegiate esports primed for growth and exposure

The University of British Columbia won the uLoL campus series at PAX East this year. Provided by Carman Lam/UBC

In the recent past, League of Legends teams organized community funding projects to purchase plane tickets and hotel rooms in order to compete. Players crammed into small rooms and bathroom closets, traveling as cheaply as possible to cut costs.

The scene has evolved since then.

Teams now have personal chefs, psychiatrists and analysts. Massive arenas are selling out; big sponsorships are pouring in. This isn't just a game anymore -- it's a fully fleshed-out machine.

All of this transformed in less than five years, and a lot of skepticism has been drowned out by these shifts in dynamics.

So when a new flower begins to bud in this burgeoning landscape, it's not surprising to find people eager to water it. People who have seen what the other sprouts grew into.

Collegiate esports is poised to experience that same growth which sits at the foundation of modern esports. Riot's University of League of Legends series. Blizzard's Heroes of the Dorm. And recently, The Big Ten Invitational, which featured Michigan State and Ohio State.

One of the first to make major investments in collegiate esports was Riot's uLoL. Riot founded the North American Collegiate Championship in 2014 and has since expanded and molded it into today's uLoL Campus Series, which comprises 32 college teams from all across North America.

The second uLoL final took place this year at PAX East in Boston, where four teams took a shot at glory before the summer lull settled in. The finals featured the defending champ, the University of British Columbia, and Robert Morris University, notable for its esports scholarships. Joining them were the University of Maryland and Georgia Tech, two teams that hoped to play the part of David in the semifinals, but ultimately weren't up to the task.

While the level of competition was high and will only continue to evolve, Riot Games hopes to make a distinction between its collegiate series and the League Championship Series (LCS). Michael Sherman, the uLoL lead, said the leagues are meant to stand on their own, similar to how the NCAA and the NBA remain separate -- which has resulted in a varied culture where even rules are different. There are legions of fans who don't care for one or the other.

There is no doubt the two entities benefit from each other and work in a symbiotic relationship. "It's conceivable that some top Campus Series players could one day end up playing on professional teams in the LCS, similar to the origins of other pro athletes in traditional sports," Sherman said. "However, we do not see uLoL's Campus Series as a 'feeder' system for the LCS or the Challenger scene.

"Additionally, we also view the Campus Series as an independent viewing experience for fans, separate from the LCS. Like with basketball -- some basketball fans follow the NBA, others like following the NCAA and a lot of basketball fans follow both. That's how we see the uLoL Campus Series and the LCS."

What Riot wants to avoid is the perception that uLoL is simply a training ground for the professional scene. That's a distinction much more in line with its Challenger series (the amateur league for League of Legends) or with leagues like the NBA's D-League.

In traditional collegiate sports, less than two percent of football and basketball players go pro. The collegiate experience is their "pro" scene. It's a small window of competition. Ultimately, team sports can build character, teamwork and discipline, among a whole host of life lessons. And college is an opportunity for students to discover what they want to do with their lives. Riot wants to build from that.

If you build it...

One doesn't need to dig very deep to discover the appeal behind building up a collegiate scene. Football, for example, is a monolith that starts at the peewee level. And universities are far more capable of drawing in more casual fans because of the connection to the school -- tapping into that sense of belonging at a time when young adults are venturing into the unknown is a huge boon to colleges. There's a massive opportunity for esports to build a strong presence there and to capture the attention of a much wider demographic.

Some schools are going all out. The University of California at Irvine is launching massive, 3,500-square-foot facility dedicated to esports. It will have a stage for competitions, 80 personal computers and a live broadcasting studio and will serve as a social hub for the student body. This is also backed with the help of Riot Games.

"We want League of Legends to become a global sport that lasts for generations," Sherman said. "Not just for the few, super-talented professional or collegiate-level players, but for all League of Legends players at all levels -- same as traditional sports, like basketball or soccer. We want League of Legends to become a hobby, or a pastime of sorts, something you grew up playing, and will maybe one day teach your own kids how to play. It stays with you."

The University of British Columbia is host to seven League of Legends teams alone. They are now back-to-back uLoL champions and have the opportunity to establish a legacy similar to the greats of college sports, as UCLA did with basketball. Carman Lam, a co-founder of the team and UBC's esports association, believes they'd be able to field two competitive teams in the uLoL Campus Series. But despite this early dominance, even UBC is unsure of how to support its team outside of a few tweets and an open mind.

But that's how esports began, too.

"Right now, they just see it as global exposure," Lam said. "I think they're only starting to understand esports, but I'm glad they are trying to learn and follow our team's news.

"It's more difficult to teach and learn than I first imagined. There are definitely some high-tech-savvy instructors at our school and they play video games, but they didn't know esports is such a huge global phenomenon. It's amazing, though, that UBC students who are non-gamers were fast to catch on. We have UBC athletes and musicians cheering us on."

Growing pains

That said, not every college is so quick to adopt esports. Ohio State, a team known to be immensely competitive in the Big Ten conference, is currently trying to court support. Nicolas Re, a third-year computer science and engineering student and head manager of the League of Legends team, said that despite good support, esports has a way to go on campus.

"To me esports means a lot, but at times I feel that to the university as a whole it means very little," Re said. "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."

At Michigan State, history education senior Connor Walsh, who also manages the League of Legends team, said the exposure is fairly limited at the moment, but is supported fervently by those who are involved.

"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," he said.

Enter The Big Ten Network throwing its weight behind esports by holding an exhibition match between the two schools at PAX East this year. That kind of move could tip the scales in terms of exposure and support. Jordan Maleh, director of digital and consumer marketing at the Big Ten Network, said in an interview with ESPN: "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."

He continued: "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."

A lot of hours are being poured into esports at a lot of levels, and people are starting to see those hours sprout into fully fledged brands and careers. Lam, for example, oversees a support staff which manages administrative tasks, logistics, internal communications, corporate relations and public relations. They've managed to acquire a host of sponsors -- WangYu, Telus, AfreecaTV, ASUS, Memory Express, Made in Print and Roam Mobility -- who covered their traveling expenses to PAX East. She said being the manager is like "being a talent agent for five spoiled kid celebrities."

UBC's team captain and top laner, Wesley "DaiJurJur" Lee, a fourth-year computer science major, is exactly the kind of player Riot Games hopes to foster. He declined offers to join professional teams to stay in school. He wanted to focus on his studies and pursue an alternate career path. Despite the lucrative appeal of the scene, it's still an elite group of players grappling for exclusive roles. Yes, the success stories are proudly paraded through the lights, but in the alleys and nooks of the scene are scores of players who failed. Skipping out on an education is an enormous risk.

Even Lee conceded, "The skill gap between a LCS team and a top collegiate team like UBC is enormous. I think we're the only collegiate roster that could compete at a Challenger level if we consistently play at our peak. It's far too difficult for a single university to obtain a Challenger-level team. RMU could not do it with their esports program, but it might be possible for UC Irvine with their new esports program since they are geographically in the center of North America's esports scene."

Los Angeles has become a sort of mecca for the esports world, as it is home to the headquarters of both Riot Games and Blizzard Games -- two companies that have repeatedly shattered esports barriers. Outside of uLoL, Blizzard recently hosted the Heroes of the Dorm, a similar event to the uLoL for its own MOBA game, Heroes of the Storm. The event had all the bells and whistles of a traditional collegiate sports tournament, from television broadcasts to expert analysis and a sold-out venue.

Working toward graduation

Collegiate esports is still trying to figure out how to fit into this puzzle, but the puzzle is continually expanding and changing its shape.

Exposure would help force its counterparts to mold around collegiate esports as well. It needs to become a two-way street. "I really hope teams can compete in person for the regional playoffs in the future," Lam said. "Hosting the regionals offline would provide a LAN experience to more teams and help prepare the regional winners for the finals.

"Our team played in tournaments outside of uLoL for international and national stage experience. It's becoming more difficult for teams to level up their play without any live experience. Regionals right now aren't as exciting as they can be, and I think intense rivalries like UBC and SFU deserve live coverage."

"University League of Legends, and collegiate esports in general, is at such a tipping point right now," Sherman said, "with so much momentum building in just the past few months alone."

Riot, Blizzard, The Big Ten Network -- all are poised to help a young scene grow and prosper. There's a massive demographic at the college level that could broaden the audience from the specific gamer niche to the full-on, school-spirit crowds.