(RNN) - Competitive gaming - also known as esports - will generate close to $696 million in 2017, and college students have started to take notice.
High school and college students who have spent hours on end playing games from Blizzard Entertainment (Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch) and Riot Games (League of Legends) could earn college scholarships, the same way football players and other athletes do.
University of California-Irvine has been a leader in the esports realm, creating teams for students long before other colleges jumped on board. The school recently announced new esports scholarships for outstanding players of Blizzard Entertainment's Overwatch, a first-person shooter game that won multiple awards when it debuted in May 2016.
Mark Deppe, UCI's acting director of esports, said tuition at the university was $11,220 in 2016. The new Overwatch scholarships will provide $2,500 per player each year. Scholarship recipients at UCI are required to maintain a GPA of 2.0 and commit 15-20 hours a week to practice in order to stay on the team.
Deppe said the university’s location in Southern California - a mecca for video game companies - has been "extremely beneficial."
"Blizzard is five miles from campus, Riot is an hour away and we have lots of other hardware and software companies in the area," Deppe said. "I think our proximity to these companies has allowed us to create really strong relationships and collaborate very closely."
Deppe said these relationships have brightened the future of collegiate esports.
"I'm very optimistic that college esports will continue to grow as administrators warm to the idea of video games as legitimate competitive and entertaining activities,” he said.
A checkered past
But the future of competitive gaming wasn't always so rosy. The sport faced staunch criticism from media pundits and nonbelievers.
Blizzard's Adam Rosen is the company's esports program manager. He holds an important position at Blizzard, but he got the job by co-founding collegiate esports organizer Tespa with his brother, Tyler.
Tespa began as a small student organization at University of Texas-Austin in 2010. The club grew quickly, receiving national attention for their esport events that in 2014 led to an official partnership with Blizzard. Tespa now hosts online leagues for many popular games, including Hearthstone, League of Legends, Starcraft II, Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm. They also give part-time jobs to students across the country to help get them through college and eventually enter the work force.
"We've seen a lot of examples where students who, from working with us in these roles, are able to graduate into full-time careers, whether it's at a game company or a production company or a myriad of others."
James O'Leary, who works for Riot Games as a shoutcaster (commentator), mirrored these sentiments.
"Esports is still mostly a risky profession when it comes to people leaving school, as a miniscule number of people aspiring to be pro gamers are actually successful," he said. "Learning at a university level for basic events production is a great start to get on the road to fully fledged broadcast roles after graduating."
And it's student-led organizations like Tespa and Riot Games' University League of Legends that have helped dampen criticism and nurture gaming's public image. Rosen told us about the "negative stigma" that used to surround gaming.
"People would look or think about gamers and think of a 35-year-old man who's sitting in his mother's basement for 16 hours a day," Rosen joked. "What we've learned is that that's not actually the case at all, right?"
He said that gamers are "very social," and are using video games to connect with others in the same way traditional sports fans do. And the connection that gaming provides students is vital to Tespa's campus-level success.
"We've seen a lot of people be changed when they can come into a community of people that they know are like-minded and love the same things that they love and fit right in," he said. "It's always pretty touching - we get letters all the time from students who have talked about how much they changed and how much they have grown and how much their college experience has been benefitted from having a community like their TESPA chapter to participate in."
Focusing on students
Traditional collegiate sports have had huge impact on how esports are organized, played and enjoyed. O'Leary said the similarities between esports and traditional sports are easily distinguishable.
"There’s always going to be crossover between sports fans and esports fans," he said. "The nature of competition isn’t that different."
Blizzard and Tespa feel the same way.
"One of the things we try to do with Tespa is we try to mirror college sports leagues because they're understandable, they're relatable and they make sense," Rosen said. "A lot of these leagues have a long regular season where players are forming teams on their campus and playing against other campuses."
Rosen said his organization is committed to supporting students in real, meaningful ways.
"We've given out almost $2 million in scholarships so far to students," he said. "This upcoming year is going to be one of the biggest yet for TESPA - we're going to have more leagues than ever before and we're going to have a lot of really cool things, which I've sworn I can't talk about right now, but we're really excited for it."
But this doesn't stop at the student level. He told us that Tespa - through its chapters - advocates heavily for esports in communities across the United States.
"We found that a lot of times it’s the chapters that have the biggest and the most active communities are the ones that are actually creating the strongest teams and creating the most active student bases as well."
Last year, Tespa chapters raised more than $4,000 for charity, a feat that Rosen said was accomplished mostly by each group’s effort.
"A lot of the charity initiatives are actually bottom-up: it's students saying, 'How can we make a difference in our communities?'" he said.
O'Leary, who does most of his commentating in the EU League Championship Series, said he felt the energy during a visit to the U.S.
"In 2015 and 2016 I worked on some of the North American Collegiate Championship shows with Riot and it was an eye-opening experience," he said. "I hadn’t really been exposed to American College sports and just how huge they can be … seeing how passionate the colleges and players were was inspiring."
The road ahead
Some question why the NCAA hasn't gotten involved yet; attempts to contact the organization were not answered.
However, Rosen is confident that the scene can grow organically with or without the group.
When asked if Tespa or Blizzard would welcome the additional oversight, Rosen said “NCAA or no NCAA, it doesn’t actually [make] that much of a different to us."
“If you look at collegiate sports there's actually a lot of debate right now about the place of the student athlete," he said. "There's a number of lawsuits that are happening, there's a lot of criticism of the regulation that happens in collegiate sports."
Rosen said protecting student athletes and their futures is high on Tespa’s list of priorities.
Much like Rosen, Deppe said that UCI would welcome the change if its benefit to students and the gaming community were evident.
And to continue esports' monumental growth, it's going to take continued involvement from familiar and new faces alike.
"The biggest thing that will make or break collegiate esports is the involvement of players and viewers," O'Leary said. "It’s going to be difficult to get interest from university alumni because of the assumed target audience of most games, so really, to make university esports work, it’s likely to be grassroots efforts for quite some time still."
And Rosen's perspective is similar. He too said building interest starts with student groups that are "grassroots" in nature. Tespa just provides a foundation upon which chapters can get started.
"We like to essentially provide a support network for students who are on their campuses wanting to create really cool, really great, really local experiences for their on-the-ground groups."
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