It's no shock that League of Legends, arguably the most popular game in the world, is huge on college campuses. By the start of 2016, six different private schools had developed scholarships based on the game, and hundreds more have student-run clubs dedicated to it. But today marks a huge milestone for League as an esport and for developer Riot Games.
The University of California, Irvine announced today that it will become the first public university to launch a League of Legends esports scholarship program beginning in fall of 2016. Riot Games will be supporting the move by funding a new PC cafe on campus for all students to use. This cafe will be built in the model of Korean PC cafes and will offer a "premium League of Legends experience," though other games will be available as well.
"We look at regions like Korea where, since launch, PC cafes have been essential to Korean players," said Michael Sherman, Riot's collegiate program manager. "They expect a premium game experience when they go play in those PC cafes. We're trying something out similar to that on college campuses. We want to give people a reason to be excited to come play at a PC cafe to support their school and team."
"We expect other schools to follow our lead"
If the deal works as Riot hopes, the developer plans to introduce it to other interested schools as a model to follow — the schools can start a new scholarship program, and Riot will help foot the bill for a fancy new PC cafe. And Mark Deppe, the newly announced esports director at University of California, Irvine, believes other schools will not be far behind in embracing League of Legends and esports in general.
"We think esports is growing quickly," Deppe said. "We expect other schools to follow our lead. UCI is excited to be a leader. We don't think we're going to be the last school to do this. We think we're going to be one of the schools that really encourages particularly public schools and shows them that this is really a viable thing. There's lots of interest in this, and it can improve your school and improve interest in your school."
The goal, as Deppe pointed out, is not just to support League of Legends or esports, but to build a name for UC Irvine as a one of the most gamer-friendly schools in the nation.
"We did a survey on campus with over 1,200 respondents," he said. "Seventy-two percent said they identify as a gamer. If we are the number one school for gamers, we're going to be attracting a lot of people. We want to be a first-choice school, and I think if we're the best gaming and esports school out there, then we can attract a lot of fantastic students."
UCI students in the Student Center's Zot Zone/The Association of Gamers at UCI
The scholarship will be offered to 10 students for up to four years at UC Irvine. As students with the scholarship graduate or leave the college, the school will offer the scholarship to new students in their place.
While much of UC Irvine's League scholarship program mirrors the school's approach to physical sports, there's one area where those fields will differ for the moment: the actual competition. Long-running traditional sports like basketball and football have decades-old structures and organizations in place to handle countrywide tournaments and seasons. League of Legends, by comparison, is still the Wild West on the collegiate level.
But Riot is working to improve this situation as the number of schools supporting esports expands. In 2014, the developer launched the North American Collegiate Championship, building on the effort of various fan-run college tournaments. After two successful years, the NACC has evolved into the University League of Legends Campus Series, a 32-team ongoing league not unlike the professional level North American League of Legends Championship Series.
"The Campus Series is a way of legitimizing and making more action and stability in the college esports space," said Sherman. "It gives them a structured league to participate in. Last year there were hundreds of schools participating, and then we had a live finals event for the final four teams."
In 2016, the Campus Series has split into four regions — North, South, East and West — of eight teams each competing in a round-robin series of games. The teams are in playoffs now, and there will once more be a live event for the final four. Slowly but surely, the space is becoming more structured and recognizable for fans of traditional sports.
For its part, UC Irvine's team will attempt to place in next year's Campus Series. But Deppe also wants the school to play a part in figuring out how that system evolves from here as more colleges embrace the esports scene.
"We'll be part of that conversation about how it unfolds and who competes against who," he said. "I love the fact that there's no preset conferences. It doesn't matter what country you're in or what language you speak. The sky's the limit for who you're competing against and what it all looks like in 10 years."
One thing that is certain to Deppe is that League of Legends is just the beginning of UC Irvine's esports offerings. He points to Chicago's Robert Morris University as an example Irvine is looking at. That school launched a League of Legends scholarship in 2014; now it's expanded to five esports scholarship offerings, including Dota 2, Hearthstone, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Heroes of the Storm.
"The hope is to expand to other esports," Deppe said. "We're interested in expanding what we offer, but I'm not sure what games we would consider. Our school happens to be really good at Super Smash Bros., so I'd be interested in pursuing that. We want to see what the interest is for other esports. One of the things I'm learning is that the community really dictates what's a hit and what's not. We want to listen to our huge gaming community on campus and see what they're interested in and where the support is from the industry."
As for Riot, the developer remains relatively humble in the face of the big news.
"I don't think we're in a position to say quite yet if esports scholarships will become as common as basketball or football scholarships," said Sherman. "But we're going to keep supporting schools that interested in this sort of endeavor."