Starting the fall, Illinois College in Jacksonville will offer scholarships for something many students do in their free time: playing video games.
The growth of eSports, or competitive video games, has been rising, so much so that it's recently been broadcast on ESPN. Sponsors are taking notice, prizes are growing in size and it's sparked a trickle-down effect where, yes, now some colleges and universities are developing teams.
Christian Matlock has seen the rise for the past half-decade or so, and Illinois College tabbed him as their coach for two teams, essentially a varsity and JV team. The notion of getting paid to play video games may be exciting for some students, but just like any traditional sport, they'll spend plenty of hours practicing and refining their craft. Matlock is taking his job as coach seriously.
While video games have a reputation as a waste of time among some people, he sees them as a way to improve problem solving and foster teamwork skills.
"I see the developmental side of things," said Matlock, who was the director of marketing for the team Allegiance. "I studied sports management in college and eSports has the same discipline and decision-making as other activities. All those same life skills go into gaming. This is a developmental tool."
Collegiate teams are a relatively new phenomenon, with Robert Morris University in Chicago starting the first team in 2012. The founder of the team, Kurt Mechler, said his team practices 20 hours a week on top of studying game film and team-building projects. That goes into a year where 20 to 30 matches or tournaments are played.
"The biggest misconception about eSports is the traditional stereotype that seems to accompany video games — the generalization that players are lazy and unmotivated," he said. "I have found that top players in our program are equally competitive and disciplined to their craft as any of our top athletes in traditional sports."
There's an organized league, Collegiate Starleague, where teams can win additional prizes and scholarships.
The game of choice is League of Legends, a multi-player game nearly 10 years old. Despite the age, game developer Riot has estimated up to 100 million people play in a month. The 2016 World Championships featured a prize pool of more than $6 million.
"In my opinion, League of Legends is nearly a perfectly balanced competitive team game," Mechler said. "Engaging and fun to play, very difficult to master."
Illinois College is on a short list of higher education institutions that have a team with scholarships. Besides Robert Morris, Maryville University in Missouri is one of around a dozen colleges scattered across the U.S. that can boast a team.
Matlock said the scholarship amount has not been decided yet, but the feedback has been overwhelming.
"There's definitely been a positive response," he said. "I can hardly walk around campus without getting stopped. There's a lot of positive engagement."
Matlock said the biggest difference from traditional sports is recruiting. While stats in football or basketball show part of the picture, a game like League of Legends has a built-in scoreboard that ranks the players. He can see if someone specializes in a certain role, or a solid all-around player.
"That's a very unique challenge," Matlock said. "They have a database in everything. Very similar to going to tournament as it is going to games to see an ace pitcher. You've got to find those matches."
Matlock said he was raised right — his older brother got him started on the Super Nintendo. Now he's turned video games into a full-time job.
"It's been a lifelong dream to be on the competitive side."