The varsity gamer: Esports go to college

Adrian Ma was only 17 years old when he graduated high school earlier this year—a full year ahead of schedule
Samuel Lingle
Dot Esports

Adrian Ma was only 17 years old when he graduated high school earlier this year—a full year ahead of schedule. The Houston native was eager to focus full time on his budding career in League of Legends, a five-on-five computer game with an increasingly lucrative professional scene.  

Ma’s team was part of the Challenger league, the amateur level just below the largest professional competition in North America and Europe, the League Championship Series. There, players compete in a weekly broadcast league and earn sizable, yearly salaries. Ma, with his significant amateur chops, was a serious contender to go pro. But he quickly realized that the gruelling professional scene, where teams need to practice eight to 12 hours a day just to keep up, was both very difficult and very risky. Leaving school early, he later admitted, was a “mistake.”

“I missed out on a lot of the things I would've done senior year," he said. "Which basically meant I had no preparation for college and beyond."

That left him in a precarious situation. How could he get into a college with a transcript filled, most recently, with League of Legends?

On July 14, a tweet from a professional League coach Ferris “AGeNt” Ganzman caught his eye.

Ma thought it was a joke at first. A college offering scholarships for a video game? But after contacting Ganzman, Ma realized it was very much real.

Robert Morris University in Illinois started handing out athletic scholarships for esports in June, and “Popstar Adrian,” as Ma goes in the game League of Legends, will be one of their first varsity players.

Competitive video gaming, or esports, is growing exponentially. Just last month, ESPN broadcasted a Dota 2 team winning nearly half of an $11 million prize pool; over 20 million people watched Chinese team Newbee become instant millionaires. But the future of esports isn’t on ESPN. It’s not in the Staples Center, which sold out for an esports event last year.

It’s on college campuses.

...

In 2009, some students at Princeton challenged rivals at MIT to a match of StarCraft. At the same time, a University of California San Diego student named Duran Parsi formed his own team. The two groups, who knew each other through StarCraft community website Team Liquid, decided to form a single competition, organizing matches in Google docs and Excel spreadsheets, and the Collegiate StarLeague (CSL) was born.

They weren't the only ones looking to expand the collegiate footprint of esports. About a year later, a pair of brothers at the University of Texas in Austin created a club to promote esports competition at their school, called the Texas Esports Association. And in in the Summer of 2011, a simple post on the official League of Legends spurred the formation of IvyLoL, a competitive college association for the biggest esport in the world.

Those groups laid the groundwork for what's become a rapidly growing and maturing infrastructure for competitive collegiate gaming. The Collegiate Star League featured 550 teams and over 5,600 players last season, and introduced their third game this year, adding Dota 2 to their StarCraft 2 and League of Legends competitions. TeSPA took the Texas out of its name, calling itself the eSports Association so it could focus on broader national goals. It now encompasses 700 schools and organizes college events across the nation, handing out thousands in scholarships as prizes. In 2012, TeSPA partnered with IvyLoL for Lone Star Clash 2, the first live final for a college esports tournament. 

“I don't think any of us thought this far into the future at all," Parsi, now CSL's CEO, said. "We were just doing it because it was really fun and every season kept getting bigger and bigger, which was awesome."

College sports are a gigantic business, with millions of dollars tossed to coaches and massive television contracts funding bloated athletic programs. College football is the country’s third most popular sport, ahead of NBA basketball and NHL hockey. The biggest star on ESPN these days? Johnny Manziel, the college football prodigy who has yet to play in his first professional game.

College esports may not be on that level. They may never be. The don't have a Manziel, a Jameis Winston, a Jadeveon Clowny. But they have produced a number of pro players.

StarCraft 2 prodigy Conan “Suppy” Liu helped make University of California, Berkeley the most winning team in CSL history before leaving school to sign a professional contract with Evil Geniuses. Liu was awarded the CSL Excellence in eSports Award in 2012. And then there's Alan “KiWiKiD” Nguyen, who made his name in League of Legends on the UT Austin team, which helped earn him a spot on pro team Dignitas.

Most esports scenes are very top-heavy. This year's edition of The International, the biggest Dota 2 tournament in the world, featured nearly $11 million in prize money. But only 2 percent of that went to teams outside the top eight of the tournament. Only a select elite few earn enough money to make a living, leaving amateur and semi-pro players struggling to make ends meet while finding the time to build a career.

That problem also extends to the tournaments themselves. There’s little incentive to host events that don’t include the upper echelon of players, considering they attract the most viewership and advertising dollars. “Sometimes the pro scene is de-motivating, since the barrier to entry is so high,” Parsi explains. It’s tough for an amateur to break into a scene against professionals practicing 12 hours a day, he notes, with no clear path to build your talent to that level, and no way to compete against your peers.

College esports provide the perfect platform to change that, a structured environment where teams and players meet not just to battle over exorbitant prize purses, but for school pride. And if you realize the pro gaming life isn’t for you, like Ma, you have a safety net: a degree.

That’s one of the things that makes college esports so exciting. For over a decade, the industry has struggled to provide an adequate structure to support amateur players. The grassroots initiatives spawned on college campuses over the past four years have done just that. The Collegiate Star League and IvyLoL both grew from the same idea: Wouldn’t it be fun if we could compete against other nearby schools at the games we love?

The challenge now is combining the massive growth of the student-initiated and student-run esports programs with increasing involvement from the official side of things. Robert Morris University may be the first university to institute esports scholarships, but it likely won’t be the last.

The North American Collegiate Championship (NACC), the biggest college competition around, already shows that kind of collaboration is possible. Organized by the developer of League of Legends itself, Riot Games, in conjunction with CSL and IvyLoL, it handed out $100,000 in scholarships for the finale in February. University of Washington beat San Jose State University to win the championship.

NACC is likely just the start of increased attention on the growing collegiate scene. IvyLoL president Trey Sweeney calls developer and university involvement “crucial” to the future of college esports, and he believes it doesn’t have to come at the cost of existing communities. “We can stay true to our roots of respecting our player base while continuing to scale up and provide a great service,” he said.

Taking college esports to the next level, however, will require money that student-run organizations just don’t have. While IvyLoL and CSL have both managed to host live finals in conjunction with other esports events over the past two years, that’s just a small start to bringing college esports out of the dorm room and computer lab and into a more sporting environment.

Parsi believes more official school involvement is inevitable, whether it’s officially recognizing esports groups as club sports or adding esports to the athletics program like Robert Morris University.

“I hope that we get to a point where the schools are fronting costs of participating, and paying for the teams' travel to final events and big LANs," he said, referring to tournaments that are run over local PC connections rather than the Internet.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the NCAA, the monolithic organization that governs college sports. Should college esports seek its validation?

Probably not, according to Parsi: “It may happen, but outside of the novelty of being recognized as being part of the NCAA, I don't really think there would be a huge benefit.”

Gaming on a college campus is hardly a new phenomenon. In 1993, Carnegie Mellon University had to institute a policy to curb intranet use of Doom. Colleges have been a hotbed for small LANs and console gathering for as long as video games have existed. But competitive gaming has also long been the type of unacademic activity you'd probably try to hide from your professors and parents and maybe significant other. Integrating gaming into the fabric of the educational system provides new opportunities for students who possess a rarely appreciated talent.

“Being able to get an education while playing the game I love at a semi-competitive level was the perfect option for me,” said Ma, who plans to study computer science when he heads to Robert Morris University next semester. His scholarship, which covers 50 percent of his costs, is something he wouldn’t have received at a school without an esports program.

Plus there are other benefits. The collegiate scene, he says, is comparable to the amateur offerings in League of Legends. “I get to play league at competitive level with a brand new infrastructure that can rival some of the bottom LCS teams,” Ma continued.

That's hardly an exaggeration. The school plans to set up a gaming room with 35 PCs and a projection screen so the team can film review. The plan is to put together a squad of 30 varsity players and 30 varsity reserves; the school will offers 50 percent scholarships to former players and 25 percent to the latter.

It’s a significant investment, and a sign that the program isn’t just a marketing ploy, as some critics have claimed. Robert Morris University isn’t a top tier school; it ranks 92 on the U.S. News & World Report regional ranking for Midwest schools. The scholarships it offers only covers at most half of the university’s $22,800 tuition. The program itself may not last the four years it will take for their first esports athletes to earn their degrees. But it’s a risk players are willing to take.

Ma is certainly excited for the opportunity. He plans to earn his degree at the same time he takes the North American Collegiate Championship away from the University of Washington. The thing Ma is most looking forward to isn’t necessarily the competition, or even his education. It's the snow, he says, a little tongue in cheek.

"Definitely the snow."

The most he gets in Houston is a little hail.

Photo by jacobroeland/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III

Overwatch's D.Va and Genji battle Diablo in this awesome Heroes of the Storm cinematic

D.Va will be joining the Heroes of the Storm roster soon.
Scott Duwe
Overwatch Writer

Overwatch continues to flood into Heroes of the Storm, as today's Heroes 2.0 reveal came with an awesome surprise.

Along with Genji, who is launching with the 2.0 update today, D.Va will soon be joining the Heroes roster. The announcement was made in a cinematic trailer featuring a battle in Hanamura between Diablo and the two Overwatch heroes.



Not much else about D.Va in Heroes was revealed, other than she will fit into the Warrior class, and that her moves in the cinematic are a "hint" as to what her abilities may entail.

D.Va and Genji join Tracer, Zarya, and Lucio as Overwatch heroes already in the game. The Hanamura battleground also launches with the 2.0 update, and is playable right now.

Call of Duty World League power rankings: April 21

With Stage 1 about to get under way, it’s time for some power rankings.
PrestonByers
Console Esports Writer

After a long wait, the first stage of the Call of Duty World League Global Pro League is here. The world’s 16 best Infinite Warfare teams will be pitted against each other over the next several weekends to decide who will be crowned S1 champions and who will head into the CWL Anaheim a whole lot richer.

Rankings were determined by a point system that calculated seven Dot Esports staff members’ votes. The staff was asked to rank the 16 teams in order from best to worst, with No. 1 the best and No. 16 the worst. Points will be rewarded to mirror a team’s ranking. For example, the first place team will receive 16 points per person, while the last team will receive one point for each vote.

Before S1 playoffs begin, we will release another rankings list.


16. Elevate (21 points)

  • Rhys "Rated" Price
  • Jordan "Reedy" Reed
  • Josh "Watson" Watson
  • Zach "Zed" Denyer

This is definitely not the place you want to begin the power rankings. Coming in at last, Elevate received 21 points. The European team has gradually regressed over the course of Infinite Warfare. Starting with a ninth-place finish at the CWL Las Vegas Open, Elevate failed to keep their momentum up in offline competitions. They finished ninth again at CWL Atlanta but 13th at the following week’s CWL Paris Open. Following Paris, Rated was added to the roster in place of Sean "Seany" O'Connor. Their first offline appearance resulted in an embarrassing 21st-place finish. They’ve made some adjustments recently, and that’s seemed to help out, with the team placing fifth at the CWL Birmingham Open.


15. Mindfreak (22 points)

  • Mitchell "BuZZO" Mader
  • Cody "Excite" Rugolo
  • Lincoln "Fighta" Ferguson
  • Conrad "Shockz" Rymarek

Not a lot of respect for the lone Australian team. ANZ’s most successful team in history has had limited playing time against North America and Europe’s best in offline tournaments. By dominating Australian offline and online competitions, Mindfreak became the top team in the region. Their inexperience against top teams may come back to hurt them. The team has only competed in two NA major events, placing 17th at Atlanta and ninth at Dallas.


14. Epsilon Esports (23 points)

  • David "Dqvee" Davies
  • Billy "Hawqeh" Harris
  • Joshua-Lee "Joshh" Shephard
  • Stephen "Vortex" Allen

Epsilon is coming off an upset title victory at the CWL Birmingham Open but the rankings really don’t reflect that. Despite double-sweeping a powerhouse like Splyce in the grand finals, Epsilon still sits at 14th. The reason? The team didn’t show up until Birmingham and, even then, it was an EU-only event. In the last international tournament, Epsilon flamed out in 21st. That poor showing can be chalked up to some subpar communication after changing a roster member by adding former Splyce player Joshh to the team. But it doesn’t erase the result.


13. Cloud9 (35 points)

  • Patrick "ACHES" Price
  • Adam "Assault" Garcia
  • Andres "Lacefield" Lacefield
  • Richard "Ricky" Stacy

Many believed that Cloud9 was destined to be a top team in IW after a hot start to the game with a second place finish at CWL Las Vegas. C9 failed to follow up their good start and were shockingly dismantled at CWL Atlanta and Paris, finishing 17th at both events. ACHES assured the world that the roster was not the issue following Paris. He was true to his word as C9 returned to respectability with a ninth-place finish at CWL Dallas.


12. Evil Geniuses (38 points)

  • Colt "Havok" McLendon
  • Jared "Nagafen" Harrell
  • Anthony "NAMELESS" Wheeler
  • Jeremy "StuDyy" Astacio

Evil Geniuses re-entered the Call of Duty world at the beginning of IW with so much promise after assembling a fan-favorite roster. Starting out with a seventh-place finish at Las Vegas, the team looked on track to become one of the best in the game. They stumbled in Atlanta though, placing 17th. EG bounced back the next weekend and finished in the money at seventh at the CWL Paris Open. Another seventh place finish at Dallas secured let them become the final North American team to qualify for the Global Pro League. Many believe they have the potential to be a top-four team with their level of natural talent, but they’ve yet to realize that potential.


11. Rise Nation (43 points)

  • Ulysses "Aqua" Silva
  • Brice "Faccento" Faccento
  • Tyler "FeLonY" Johnson
  • Daniel "Loony" Loza

How the mighty have fallen. Winning the first major title of the game usually is a good sign, but it seems that the title cursed Rise Nation and caused them to falter over and over. After being crowned CWL Las Vegas champions, Rise finished ninth at CWL Atlanta. They then came alive at CWL Paris the following weekend to finish third. Despite having a poor event in Atlanta, there was a sense of belief in Rise going into CWL Dallas. There shouldn’t have been. The team played well against good teams but ultimately failed to win their games. Rise finished 17th.


T9. Fnatic (45 points)

  • Matthew "Skrapz" Marshall
  • Gurdip "SunnyB" Bains
  • Tom "Tommey" Trewen
  • Bradley "Wuskin" Marshall

Fnatic returned to Call of Duty after a hiatus of five years. The historic League of Legends and Counter-Strike organization signed a roster that included young and promising talents, partnered with veteran and former champion Tommey. The team has done as expected, finishing within the top 16 in major tournaments and near the top in European play. They may be able to surprise some at the Global Pro League with many underestimating them.


T9. Enigma6 (45 points)

  • Jordon "General" General
  • Kade Jones
  • Mike "MRuiz" Ruiz
  • Nicholas "Proto" Maldonado

Enigma6 has been a very middle-of-the-road team thus far in IW. Their ranking reflects that, putting them in the middle of the pack. By finishing seventh, 13th, and ninth twice in major tournaments, E6 has shown that they can beat basically any team on the fringe of breaking into the top teams. But they can’t break into the discussion as one of the best teams.


8. Millenium (53 points)

  • Mark "MarkyB" Bryceland
  • Tom "Moose" Handley
  • Nick "Nolson" Nolson
  • Adam "Peatie" Peate

The Call of Duty community was shocked when they learned the news of Team Infused parting ways with their roster prior to CWL Dallas. Shortly after releasing their French team, Millenium acquired Infused’s U.K. squad. The Millenium jerseys must’ve had some bad luck for the Brits as they finished 13th at Dallas. This came after successful showings at both CWL Atlanta and Paris, finishing fifth and fourth, respectively. The voters obviously believe that they are better than that 13th-place finish though.


7. Red Reserve (61 points)

  • Joe "Joee" Pinnington
  • Niall "Niall" Sunderland
  • Sean "Seany" O'Connor
  • David "Urban" Marsh

Red Reserve has shown a lot of promise in the short time they have been together. After Rated left, Seany joined and the team hit the ground running. In the four MLG 2000 Series tournaments that they have competed together, they have not finished outside of the top three, finishing first, second, and third on two occasions. They have been relatively successful offline as well, finishing fifth at CWL Dallas and Birmingham.


6. Luminosity Gaming (75 points)

  • Nicholas "Classic" DiCostanzo
  • Sam "Octane" Larew
  • Renato "Saints" Forza
  • Josiah "Slacked" Berry

LG has consistently been good, but not great in Infinite Warfare. The team has finished in the top 10 in every offline tournament and has been close to cracking into the top three. Luminosity’s best performance came at CWL Atlanta, where they placed fourth. Their other top placings have shown that they are the gatekeepers to the upper echelon of CoD.


5. Team EnVyUs (85 points)

  • Bryan "Apathy" Zhelyazkov
  • Jordan "JKap" Kaplan
  • Johnathon "John" Perez
  • Austin "SlasheR" Liddicoat

The defending world champions have had a somewhat weak showing in IW. Despite placing third at CWL Atlanta, the ‘Boys in Blue’ struggled to follow that performance up with some more great placings. Finishing ninth in Paris and fifth in Dallas, EnVyUs is near the top of the game but just can’t seem to put the pieces together to repeat the success they had last year. A major accomplishment that nV does have this year? They are one of the only teams to beat OpTic Gaming offline.


4. Splyce (91 points)

  • Ben "Bance" Bance
  • Jordan "Jurd" Crowley
  • Dylan "MadCat" Daly
  • Trei "Zer0" Morris

The consensus top European team is the top European team in our rankings as well. Although they were double swept in the grand finals of the CWL Birmingham by Epsilon, Splyce has the resumé of a top team. There is a concern that they can lose composure and allow things to snowball, but their results are undeniable. A fourth-place finish at CWL Dallas showed that swapping Joshh out for Zer0 was the right move—and it may be a big enough move to break them into the top three teams in the world if they can bounce back in Stage 1.


3. FaZe Clan (96 points)

  • Dillon "Attach" Price
  • James "Clayster" Eubanks
  • Ian "Enable" Wyatt
  • Tommy "ZooMaa" Paparratto

FaZe is undeniably the third best team in the world. They have finished in the top three in nearly every MLG 2K tournament while staying in the top five in offline tournaments. It’s still disappointing for them. FaZe’s roster is used to success with 13-time champion Clayster leading the way. The disappointment and frustration was most evident at the CWL Paris Open. After being swept by OpTic Gaming in the grand finals, Clayster was visibly upset, even tossing his silver medal after a photo. A second place finish led him to react that way. There’s no way that he or his teammates are content with their play this year, but they will need to step their game up big time against OpTic to break through further.


2. eUnited (106 points; 1 first-place vote)

  • Alec "Arcitys" Sanderson
  • Pierce "Gunless" Hillman
  • Preston "Prestinni" Sanderson
  • Justin "SiLLY" Fargo-Palmer

The surprise of Infinite Warfare is the sudden, meteoric rise of eUnited. After finishing 21st at CWL Las Vegas, eUnited released everyone on their roster except for SiLLY. The former Cloud9 star quickly assembled a roster filled with so-called online warriors: Arcitys, Gunless, and Prestinni. As expected, they dominated online competitions. Many were waiting for their meltdown on LAN at CWL Atlanta but it never came. EUnited just kept winning and winning, eventually holding on in a heart-stopping grand finals to beat OpTic Gaming. A bad showing in Paris had some questioning if they just got lucky in Atlanta, but that was put to rest with a second-place finish at Dallas, where they lost in a heart-stopping grand finals to OpTic.


1. OpTic Gaming (111 points: 6 first-place votes)

  • Ian "Crimsix" Porter
  • Matthew "FormaL" Piper
  • Damon "Karma" Barlow
  • Seth "Scump" Abner

This is pretty obvious. Throwing away their fifth place showing at Las Vegas, OpTic has been the best team in the world without a doubt. EUnited somehow keeping composed and winning at CWL Atlanta showed OpTic that they had a true equal in IW. Other than eUnited, nobody has stepped up to the Green Wall since their historic lower bracket run in February. With two major titles already, it’d be no shock to see even more added to OpTic’s collection.