By Brandon Ong
SALT LAKE CITY — “It was five years ago the first time they showed up in my office and said they were interested in having scholarships for playing esports,” said AJ Dimick, director of eSports Operations at the University of Utah. “The infrastructure did not exist then. The core group of students at Crimson Gaming created one of the first grassroots gaming community and held events so big they could not be ignored. They bothered all the right people. We were able to be the first school from a Power Five conference to make a varsity esports program. ”
League of Legends (LoL) is the world’s most popular esports game, according to Business Insider. LoL is a game that puts five players against five opposing players where the main objective is to destroy the other team’s base, or “nexus.” It launched in late 2009, and since then, boasts a worldwide, monthly player base of 87,000,000. In addition, LoL has a professional scene and a following compared to traditional spectator sports like basketball and soccer. Professional teams compete in a world championship at the end of every year, with frequent, multi-million dollar prize pools. Traditional sports stadiums like Staples Center have sold out League of Legends competitors. The game doesn’t just have a professional scene, however; teams are being formed at the amateur and collegiate level.
While professional gaming on campus may seem abstract or even ridiculous to some, it shares several parallels with traditional sports. For example, today, student-athletes take part in leagues, like the Pac-12. They have their own training facilities, are expected to not only practice with their teammates but also to devote their own time to improve, and receive scholarship money. To keep their scholarships, they must fulfill a minimum GPA. In addition to the PAC-12, the university’s League of Legends team takes part in a larger league sponsored by the game’s creators Riot Games, called uLoL, consisting of 300 university teams across the country. The players spend at least 12 hours a week practicing as a team and all maintain a competitive ranking of Diamond 5 — this means they must be in the top 2 percent of players in the nation in order to keep their scholarship of $1,000 a year.Since this is only the first official year of U of U Esports, the infrastructure of the team is not as well established yet, as there are only 25 esports players overall, seven of whom are League of Legends players. However, establishing an esports structure is not the only thing the U of U esports team has managed to do this year.
Besides creating the first collegiate varsity esports team, the U has teamed up with other Pac-12 universities to form the Pacific Alliance of Collegiate Gamers (PACG),“ to further the interests of collegiate esports among Pac-12 college campuses,” according to UNews, the university’s official news source. The team is also taking initiative by not only broadcasting their own games, but all the other PACG teams’ games on twitch.tv, the leading streaming service for video games in the U.S.
Although it is the offseason, the players can still be seen practicing hard in their current training facility, the Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse. “We’re expecting and encouraged to stay on the team for next year,” said Thomas “Kraedon” Nguyen, whose major is finance. He says while he enjoys the game, Nguyen also plays to retain his scholarship.
“Even though the game is fun to play alone, it feels good to compete and be part of a team that represents something bigger,” said Alex “Kenya” Fritz, whose major is computer science. In their first official year as a team, they placed in the top 8 out of 70 teams in their uLoL division.
The team also has short and long-term goals they want to meet. AJ Dimick, whose role mirrors those of a traditional athletic director, says the most important goal is to expand how “we’re paying for the people for the education for the people involved.” Dimick compared the esports scholarship to a traditional athletic scholarship. While the esports students are given $1,000 a year, he estimates that traditional athletic students are given $30,000, which includes not only tuition— but money for books and room and board. He also mentioned that the program is looking to open nine more spots for scholarships next year and are looking to build an exclusive training and event facility for U of U esports. They are looking for funding through potential sponsors and the school’s athletic department.
Dimick’s vision for the esports team is more than just extra funding and more computers. “There are people that think the esports scene is a counter-culture to the mainstream sports culture. I find that ridiculous. I’ve been on both sides and I want to take those barriers down.”
In just the first year of U of U esports, the team has accomplished much. Esports fans will not be the only ones getting excited as the whole university community will be with them every step of the way.
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