The Big Ten Network and Riot Games launch the BTN League of Legends season

Riot Games and the BTN will produce the BTN League of Legends season. Provided by Riot Games

Collegiate esports is taking a big step forward, as the Big Ten Network and game publisher Riot Games will announce a partnership on Thursday, where 12 of 14 schools in the conference will compete in a season-long League of Legends championship. The league will start Jan. 30 and will be broadcast on BTN2Go and watch.lolesports.com, with the finals televised on March 27 by the Big Ten Network.

The deal was struck following last year's BTN Invitational featuring teams from Ohio State and Michigan State, which took place live in front of a standing-room-only crowd at Pax East in Boston. The 3½ hour event was broadcast on BTN and on Riot's League of Legends website.

The competing schools are Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue, Rutgers and Wisconsin, all clubs of the school, with Nebraska and Penn State currently not participating. The teams will split into the BTN East and West, playing a best-of-three round robin against division foes. The top four teams in each group will then be ranked in a single-elimination bracket, with East and West playing each other in the championship match. One of the matchups each week will be streamed digitally on Riot's website, with a full-scale production on BTN's digital platforms. Players won't have to travel and could play the games from their dorm rooms until the finals, which will take place at Riot's facilities in Los Angeles.

"As a content provider, we have obviously seen the popularity in esports grow," said Erin Harvego, BTN's vice president of marketing. "Given the demographic that watches, perhaps this could reach a younger viewer who we haven't reached before."

Each of the six players on the 12 teams, who must be full-time students, will receive $5,000 in scholarship money, provided by Riot and distributed by Scholarship America. The money must be spent on academic costs like tuition and books.

Michael Sherman, head of Riot's competitive collegiate League of Legends division (which recognizes about 700 college clubs), suggested that even more money could be available in the future once schools get a taste of the exposure.

"We've seen a lot more interest from senior-level people at the universities," Sherman said. "We could see a domino effect, where one school offers a scholarship and the others follow. We think a lot of conference networks will take a look at this opportunity as well."

Sherman said 25 schools currently offer esports scholarships.

There's also the possibility of pro teams plucking players after watching them, though history suggests that's a long shot, as Riot already has a challenger series that serves as a minor league to the pro championship level.

The BTN champion will go on to compete in the League of Legends College Championship in late March.