Robert Morris University-Illinois considers all its athletes to be on the same playing field, whether their game is football, soccer or even League of Legends.
The school recently added the first eSports sector to its athletic program, even going as far as to offer selected students scholarships worth up to half their tuition and room and board. As part of the Collegiate StarLeague — an intercollegiate gaming league — RMU joins more than 100 other universities in competition, including Arizona State, George Washington University and Harvard.
But the leap to online competition isn't without competitive-minded thinking, according to associate athletic director Kurt Melcher.
Speaking to Polygon during a recent phone interview, Melcher explained that eSports are a perfect fit for the school's sports culture, which he describes as already being a little out-of-the-box.
"The sports culture at RMU is unique," Melcher told Polygon. "We have all the major sports: our football team, we have a basketball team, soccer teams. But then we also have color guard, we have choir, performing arts all under the athletic umbrella. We also have a painting guild that students can receive scholarships for.
"[League of Legends] just made sense. I don't think anyone thought anything disparaging about adding eSports and eSports athletes to our lineup."
"I was shocked at the scale and size of that game and the community behind it."
Melcher, 45, has been employed with the university for almost 20 years. In his college days, he spent his time playing games such as StarCraft and Command & Conquer. It was his renewed interest in the latest StarCraft game that eventually lead him to "the massive" League of Legends — which subsequently amazed him.
"I was shocked at the scale and size of that game and the community behind it," Melcher said.
Citing his school's "forward thinking" attitude as part of his motivation, Melcher presented the idea to RMU's president, Michael P. Viollt, along with director of athletics Megan Smith.
"To his credit, he saw the potential in eSports," Melcher said of Viollt, "and didn't see it any different than traditional sports where there's teamwork, strategy and practicing involved ... [The school] recognizes that different opportunities for different students make a lot of sense."
The school then got involved with Riot, who helped instruct the institution on how to form their program. Although the developer already holds a collegiate program to help connect players on campus, it's a first for a sports program. Community specialist Steve Jaworski told Polygon that Riot's involvement has been focused on giving the school practical advice.
"Our involvement has been focused on giving RMU's team the tools and information they need to make informed choices for students entering this new system," Jaworski said.
"With an announcement like this, it's important to be prepared for the scale of response — we worked to help equip the team for the sheer volume of interested players that would want to be a part of the program."
"We decided to start the launch with the biggest."
Riot also helped connect Melcher and the school with eSports contacts to help them compile a team for the competitive space. The goal is to build a program focused on competition and sportsmanship.
League of Legends players, both professional and recreational, are required by Riot to uphold certain principles of play; failure to do so has already resulted in the suspension of many high-profile players. At RMU, toxic or inappropriate behavior will have an even heavier punishment, and standards are measured against rules from Riot, the university and the Collegiate StarLeague.
"Players, just like from any of our traditional sports, would have to sign a letter of intent," Melcher said. "That letter of intent would spell out that you're a good citizen. Our athletes are judged on a more stringent behavior pattern than regular students, just because they're sort of the face of the university. That will be monitored by the coach and the university strictly."
Anyone who violates those rules could face game suspension, social probation, scholarship loss or even a boot from the team.
In addition to students, RMU is also searching for a coach to head the team's growth. Coach hiring isn't taken lightly, Melcher said, and the school is seeking someone with LoL community experience and the ability to teach.
"[Applicants] will definitely go through a rigorous interview process to make sure they're able to interact with student athletes in an appropriate manner, really with the goal of them being gamers second, students first," Melcher said. "But we want them to get as good at gaming, especially in League of Legends, as they can."
Once the coach has been selected, he or she will help assemble the team into a three-tiered varsity lineup. Students will practice daily, just like other athletes, and be mixed together for upcoming matches at the coach's discretion. The coach will also help hash out the design of the team's uniforms.
RMU expects to have its team ready to go for the 2014-2015 school year. League of Legends may be the first addition to RMU's eSports lineup, but Melcher doesn't see it being the last.
"We decided to start the launch with the biggest, but I definitely see us down the line adding more games to the eSports lineup," Melcher said. "The games kind of come and go. They have the flexibility to add and change with the culture."
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