The popularity of eSports has taken off in recent years but even so, the addition of League of Legends to the varsity sports lineup at Robert Morris University Illinois represents a big step toward mainstream legitimacy. The program, the first of its kind, offers qualified gamers scholarships worth up to 50 percent of their tuition, room and board.
RMU is recruiting students for its September entry into the Collegiate Star League , an association of 103 schools in the U.S. and Canada competing for Riot's North American Collegiate Championship and its prize pool of $100,000 in scholarships. And while there are some obvious distinctions between them, Associate Athletic Director Kurt Melcher, the head of the LoL program, said the university is putting eSports players on the same footing as its conventional athletes. "It's not like traditional sports, it's esports, there are differences that exist in that realm," he told PC Gamer. "But as far as how the school will treat them, they'll be looked at and treated the same way as our basketball players or football players."
There is one potentially significant difference, however. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has rules establishing amateurism as a "bedrock principle of college athletics," but those rules don't govern eSports. RMU is thus able to recruit anyone it wants for its team. "We welcome, say, ex-professionals or current professionals that are able to handle the academic side and still maintain the GPA, go to classes and be part of our team. As long as they're able to handle both responsibilities, we have no problem with bringing on players that have been in that [professional] setting," Melcher said. "If the NCAA were to adopt eSports or League of Legends, I'm sure there'd be a ton of restrictions on things like recruiting, but right now, I don't see them adding it anytime soon."
RMU is "definitely the first" to offer a League of Legends varsity program but Melcher hopes other institutions will follow its lead. The Collegiate Star League is "super-well-organized," he explained, "but it's all non-tier basis. They do a great job, but I can see it kind of going to the next step, where the universities get involved and resources get put into it and it develops to another level." And that, he believes, could lead to a following at the collegiate level rivaling that of professional leagues.
"Other collegiate sports, let's say football or basketball, those numbers at times outweigh the professional teams," he said. "I think we're probably a little ways off of that, but like I said, we're the first college to come onboard [but] I hope we're not the last. We can kind of build it out and become just like traditional sports, where the collegiate scene is vibrant and is active, and the participation and the viewership is there."
For now, though, the focus is on shorter-term goals. "We want to be competitive and one of the better teams in the Collegiate Star League," Melcher said. "Our goal is to get into the NACC finals competition, and be one of the teams competing for the collegiate championship."
Details about the Robert Morris University's League of Legends varsity program can be found at the RMU Eagles website .