University of Utah announces varsity esports program

League of Legends is one of the most popular esports on the planet. Provided by Riot Games

Does a collegiate esports program have to fall under the athletics department? One university doesn't think so.

The University of Utah announced Wednesday that it is forming a college-sponsored varsity esports program, which makes it the first university in the Power 5 conferences to do so. The program, which will start in League of Legends and plans to announce other games in the future, will be sponsored by the university's Entertainment Arts and Engineering (EAE) video game development department, which has been ranked the best video game development program in the nation by The Princeton Review three of the past five years.

"We plan to support four games. Each game will have a main team, one or two substitutes and a student coach. Depending on the games, we expect around 35 total students involved. All students [players, subs and coaches] will receive a partial scholarship," EAE director Robert Kessler told ESPN. "We will have regulations for participation on the team that involve due progress toward graduation, a GPA [requirement], etc."

Although current interest in the program might be concentrated in EAE because of the video game connection, Kessler sees this as an opportunity to appeal to those outside the department and even outside the university.

"We expect that this will increase our number of applicants to the university," he said. "Players can come from any place on campus. We do see a correlation between gamers and our EAE students, so we think that it will help us in EAE and university recruiting."

"Esports has had a dramatic rise in popularity in the U.S. over the last few years, especially on college campuses," said A.J. Dimick, Director of Operations of Esports at The U.

"Utah's announcement today is a major stepping stone for college League of Legends. First off, Utah's game development program is widely respected, but [the school] is also a major state university that is heavily invested in college sports," said Michael Sherman, collegiate esports lead at League of Legends developer Riot Games. "We now have a precedent with every type of university invested in League of Legends, from small private colleges to Power 5 universities."