Being gifted in a sport like football, baseball or track and field can help a student get into college and receive financial aid. Rarely, but sometimes, it can lead to a career in well-paying professional sports.
But what if your muscles are in your head? The newest hot sport on campus offers competition and financial aid for skill shown in video games.
Professional video game competitions have been popular worldwide for several years. Teams and individuals compete for prize money and awards in games like Starcraft and Street Fighter. But becoming highly skilled and professional at e-sports is not unlike moving up in physical contact sports.
Michael Brooks is the executive director of the National Association of Collegiate (NACE), which supports the growth of college-level e-sports and establishes its rules. NACE is similar to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which organizes and creates rules for most major college sports competitions in the U.S., like football and basketball. In 2016, Maryville University of St. Louis and five other schools joined together to form NACE.
Brooks says that three years ago, only about seven colleges and universities in the U.S. had e-sport programs. Much of the popularity for video game competitions is in Europe and Asia because the industry for traditional professional sports in the US is already so strong.
Also, access to high-speed internet in the U.S. is lacking, Brooks adds.
But he says websites like Youtube and Twitch, where people share video of themselves competing in video games, have made a big difference. In addition to playing, watching others compete has become much more popular.
Now, more young Americans are looking for a path to professional-level competition.
While many schools thought e-sports came out of nowhere, “that’s not necessarily true,” Brooks told VOA via Skype.
“It was just that if you’re interested in e-sports, that was something you had to go find. It wasn’t something put in front of you in the real world. … And it’s only till recently that enough organizations have seen that there is a need here.”
Currently, 41 U.S. colleges and universities with e-sport teams are members of NACE. Brooks says schools do everything they can to treat the e-sports teams just like their traditional sports teams.
Schools provide computers and other necessary equipment. At most U.S. universities, it is common for the school to support e-sport students financially. Southwest Baptist University in Missouri, for example, gives its e-sports team members as much as $10,000 in assistance.
Schools invite the best young players in the country to join their teams, just like with traditional college sports. Also, these student must maintain their grades to stay on the team.
Yet for some traditionalists, this still does not mean colleges or the public should compare video games to soccer or baseball. Brandon Spradley is the director of sports management at the United States Sports Academy. The school provides higher education in sports-related fields. Spradley also was on the competitive running team at the University of Alabama when he was a student there.
Spradley says he is glad that schools are offering to help students pay for their education through competitions. But video games are not physically demanding as traditional sports.
“With e-sports, I do believe that the preparation is there and I do believe there is … skill to it, as well,” Spradley says. But “the physical exertion that most athletes [experience] … the practices that we have to do, the skill that we have to demonstrate, day in and day out. That is what I believe separates real sports from e-sports.”
Kenneth Lam, the assistant director of the esports program at Maryville University, finds that argument pointless. After all, he says, there is no way golf is in any way as physically demanding as football. But people still call golf a sport.
Lam says the five-member team practices one- to three-nights per week for three hours at a time, requiring a lot of physical and mental energy. All that effort has paid off since the school started the program in 2015.
His team beat eight other North American schools to win the League of Legends College Championships in May. Earlier this month, they won third place at League of Legends International College Cup in Wuhan, China.
“It’s really exciting to see how much we have [been able to do] for the past two years,” Lam told VOA via Skype.
Lam, Spradley and Brooks agree on one thing: e-sports is only going to increase in popularity. For example, the sports-media company ESPN has begun showing e-sport competitions three years after ESPN’s president said they were not a real sport.
In addition, the number of new students attending Maryville grew by 45 percent from 2015 to 2016. Lam said he attributes that to e-sports.