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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Video Game Players To Be Rewarded With Athletic Scholarships

Parents take note: you might want to pause for a moment before you tell your teenager to put down the video games and do something — actually anything — else.

For the first time ever, a university is offering generous scholarships — athletic scholarships — to students who play the League of Legends multiplayer video game. In fact, Robert Morris University in Chicago is debuting a team.

To the 27 million people who play these games daily and the thousands of spectators who turn up to watch professional tournaments, the games have long been considered a sport. But the scholarships mark the first time League of Legends is being listed in the same category as football, soccer and swimming.

Robert Morris’s associate athletic director, Kurt Melcher, says he thinks the scholarships will attract an underserved male population, and judging from the number of initial inquiries about the new program — close to 700 in a week — he may have hit on something big.

Melcher discusses the idea of video game scholarships with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.

Interview Highlights

On giving sports scholarships to video game players

“There’s no physical activity, but we also offer scholarships for our bowling teams. We do so for our choir and our band. Each of them has a level of physical ability and also a level of skill. Certainly, League of Legends is no different than say the skill required or amount exerted as bowling.”

On the size and quantity of these scholarships

“We’re planning on having three varsity teams. It’s five versus five. I think it makes sense to have eight or nine per team. The kids would get, for the best players, 50 percent tuition and 50 percent room and board, which comes out to almost $19,000.”

On creating university e-sport teams 

“The culture of the gaming environment is all-nighters fueled by Red Bull and going at it hard. So I think we’ll have to put reverse elements into it, saying ‘hey stop practicing, take it easy, make sure you’re studying, get to classes, and make sure you’re a good citizen within the university.'”

Guest

  • Kurt Melcher, associate athletic director at Robert Morris University in Chicago.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. For the first time ever, a University is offering athletic scholarships to kids who are good at a video game, the "League Of Legends" multiplayer video game, to be specific. And it's happening at Robert Morris University in Chicago where Kurt Melcher is associate athletic director. He's the one who came up with the idea. And Kurt, let's start by listening to a little bit of sound from "League Of Legends."

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "LEAGUE OF LEGENDS")

HOBSON: And in this clip, Kurt, we're watching a purple guy running through a bleak planet. There are bombs exploding around him and he's carrying a - a book. How is that a sport, playing that game?

KURT MELCHER: Well, it's not a sport as in traditional sports, you know, and our school has those - football, basketball, those - it's an e-sport. So it's played five v. five. You're part of a team. Your character has a specific role on that team. There's a lot of strategy involved, and it's very detailed into how to be successful. So it makes a lot of sense to offer it as part of our athletic setting.

HOBSON: Yeah, but there's no physical activity involved.

MELCHER: Right, there's no physical activity. But we also offer scholarships for our bowling teams. We do so for our choir and our band. So there's - you know - each of them has a level of physical ability and also a level of skill. And certainly, "League of Legends" is no different than, say, the skill required or amount exerted as bowling.

HOBSON: OK. Well, how much of the kids who get these scholarships going to get and how many of them will there be?

MELCHER: We are planning on having three varsity teams. So it's five v. five - I think it makes sense to have eight or nine per team. The kids would get, you know, for the best players would get 50 percent tuition and 50 percent room and board which comes out to about $19,000.

HOBSON: And you've had nearly 700 inquiries so far?

MELCHER: Absolutely, it's been tremendous.

HOBSON: Were you surprised by that?

MELCHER: I was a little bit, to be honest. I knew it was very popular, and I knew there was a community that hadn't been served. And I think they feel a little bit liberated and vindicated that finally their sport - their passion is going to be represented at a college setting.

HOBSON: Well, and we know that among the people who play this - and there are 27 million people who play "League of Legends" - they already believe that it's a sport - many of them do. But there are some parents out there who are thinking to themselves this is just going to encourage more sedentary behavior. We've been trying to get our kids, you know, outside, instead of sitting there playing video games, and now you're saying to them, no, that's a sport that's worthy of a scholarship to college.

MELCHER: Yeah, you know, to be honest, I think they would be doing that anyways. You know, I don't think that providing an option for them to do something that they're good at is going to sort of hinder them from going outside and running around. Even at our school, you know, we have offered intramural athletics so kids can get involved outside of just "League of Legends" playing. So there's plenty of opportunity.

HOBSON: Well, how much time do you expect these scholarship students are going to be spending playing "League of Legends" during their college career?

MELCHER: Yeah, well, the culture of that gaming environment is, you know, all-nighters fueled by red bull and going at it hard. So I think we'll have to put reverse elements into it saying, like, hey, stop practicing. Take it easy. Make sure you're studying. Get to classes, and, you know, be a good citizen within the university.

HOBSON: And you think that'll work?

MELCHER: I hope so. Well, our coach will be in charge of monitoring that for sure.

HOBSON: Kurt Melcher is associate athletic director at Robert Morris University in Chicago. Kurt, thanks for joining us.

MELCHER: Thank you.

HOBSON: And what do you think about this? We've been asking on Facebook. Marade Pratcha (PH), who's a professor, calls it utter nonsense and a sad comment on how we define fitness. She adds, tongue-in-cheek, that if she gets these athletes in her classes, she'll begin lectures with 15 minutes of interval sprint training. Michael Richards - and I'm getting not that Michael Richards - thinks it's a great idea and calls it a step in the right direction. And Josie Bara (PH) points out that there are legitimate competitions with big prizes so why not a scholarship for video game players. Let us know what you think at facebook.com/hereandnowradio or hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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