The Booming College Sport That Lets Athletes Get Paid

Believe it or not, eSports have made their way to college campuses and school-organized teams have no problem with competitors getting paid.

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Apr 20 2015, 1:14pm

March Madness is over, but college sports fans of a different kind are in the midst of a tournament of a different kind. For them, it's not too late to say This is March.

This tournament features a 64-team bracket with representatives from schools across the country and an elite eight featuring Indiana, UConn, Texas A&M, Cal, Washington, and Arizona State. Its competitors are strictly college students, it's broadcast by ESPN, and its fans fill out brackets, hoping to win big by correctly choosing the winners.

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But there are two major differences between this tournament and the NCAA basketball tournament. The first is that this one, dubbed by Blizzard Entertainment as "Heroes of the Dorm," is played entirely online by the best college gamers in the country.

The second, less obvious difference between those representing their schools in "Heroes of the Dorm" and the superstars of March Madness? The gamers can get paid.

Screenshot of "Heroes of the Dorm" gameplay.

It's a pretty big prize, in fact. The winning team gets tuition paid for, or paid back, for their entire college career, while the final four teams get game systems and the rest of the 64-team field gets gift cards. In total, there is over $450,000 worth of prizes. The 64-team part of the tournament was broadcast on Watch ESPN, with the finals on April 26 to be broadcast live on an ESPN network to be determined.

This isn't March Madness, but it's a small-scale version of the mixture of college athletics and "amateurism" that the NCAA shows off every March and April. And it's a booming market, with eSports poised to make a splash in the college athletics scene.

"Sports can do great things for college athletes in terms of sportsmanship, teamwork, communication, and more," said Blizzard's Emil Rodriguez. "We think the same opportunities exist in collegiate eSports and it makes sense that the hard work that students put into all of their studies, including competitive gaming, are rewarded."

"Heroes of the Dorm" is proof that this niche segment of sports has the potential to gain some traction in the mainstream. Over 900 teams from 460 schools in the US and Canada submitted entries, and those teams have fans, particularly at Cal, which has developed a following and has been picked to win in a quarter of bracket submissions, according to Rodriguez.

Even outside of the tournament, eSports have grown. Robert Morris University, an NAIA school in Chicago, became the first school to award eSports scholarships in 2014, hoping to secure some of the top college-aged "League of Legends" players in the country, both through recruiting and applications.

Promotional image for "League of Legends."

But even though "League of Legends"—a multiplayer online battle arena game–is a sanctioned sport at Robert Morris, it's not governed by the NAIA, so these amateur athletes are free to accept any kind of gifts or "impermissible" benefits that they want. If a booster for the program wants to take a couple Robert Morris eSports participants or recruits out to dinner, they are more than free to accept the invitation.

"I would encourage that [if a booster gave a free meal]," RMU eSports coordinator Kurt Melcher said. "That would be awesome. In fact, we have had that happen where some of our partners come to dinner."

Other NCAA and NAIA athletes are not allowed to compete for prizes in their offseasons, but when this opportunity came about in the "League of Legends" offseason, Melcher's team had no barriers to participating.

This is the kind of opportunity that drew in one of the RMU team members, Alex Chapman, who transferred from Michigan to play "League of Legends" for the Eagles this year. He chose to transfer "specifically" to be part of the teams, and for the perks — a scholarship and the opportunity to be part of a team that could compete nationally in tournaments.

For students like Chapman, eSports provides an opportunity beyond traditional college athletics. He played club soccer at Michigan but was forced to quit after sustaining too many concussions. Then he started playing "League of Legends," got hooked, and found himself at Robert Morris, where he's in position to be treated better financially than any of the other college athletes in the country.

"I was actually having this conversation with my family the other day," he said. "My cousins are NCAA athletes and they were frustrated with me because [RMU provides] me with money for winning, but they can't get anything."

In a way, eSports can provide a blueprint for how to allow payment of college athletes in other sports. "League of Legends" has 67 million monthly players and its tournaments had accumulated a total viewership of 70 million as of last April. Those numbers are too big for schools to ignore, and they have the potential to be cash cows for universities and the NCAA.

"At some point I think [the] NAIA or NCAA will force their hand," Melcher said. "Or there will be a separate subset organization that organizes it and controls it. For sure something big is gonna happen. It's gonna get organized."

The trouble for the NCAA would be attracting the best players, while keeping them from earning prize money. While Chapman said he thinks students would still be attracted by the free tuition, it's sensible that players who can currently earn money this way would be reluctant to lose the ability to earn prize money. After all, what can be wrong with being a scholarship student earning prize money if it's allowed right now?

Of course, the organization of eSports into such a big collegiate enterprise is still far off, but it currently employs the kind of amateurism that most reformers favor—a way for athletes to be students and get free tuition, and for the best ones to benefit from their success. And that means, for now, students like Chapman get the best of both the amateur and professional worlds, which is why he started playing eSports in the first place.

"The opportunity to play video games," he said. "Like, getting paid to play video games."