The college sports season is in full force. Today fourth ranked Baylor fell to unranked Western Virginia University in one of the biggest upsets of the college football season so far.
But the Robert Morris University Eagles are not attracting attention for football—despite their undefeated team. Their big draw? Video games.
The school revealed it would award scholarships to outstanding League of Legends students in June. Today, their varsity League of Legends team played its first ever match—a dominating victory against University of Kentucky in the Collegiate Star League. On Monday at 10PM EST, HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel will air Soledad O’Brien’s visit with the Eagles and their varsity esports team.
The last time esports appeared on HBO, in October of last year, the concept was laughed off by their panel of experts. But with things like the RMU program and the $11 million The International 4 tournament early this year, it’s getting harder and harder to take a skeptical stance.
Even O’Brien, who defended esports on the panel last year, calls esports the realm of “non-jocks, or if you’re feeling less charitable, nerds” in the episode preview. But the reality is that distinction hardly matters—esports is quickly growing into a pastime everyone enjoys.
RMU athletic director Kurt Melcher certainly thinks so. Melcher spearheaded the movement to add esports to his program, and so far it’s working for his school. He’s seen in the preview video introducing the team to the rest of RMU’s athletes, wearing a jacket plastered with the iBuyPower logo—the esports program has attracted sponsors.
The players are certainly happy to receive scholarships for an activity they enjoy. “Being able to get an education while playing the game I love at a semi-competitive level was the perfect option for me,” said Adrian “Popstar Adrian” Ma, the support player for the Eagles’ varsity squad, in an August interview.
The players are rewarding RMU’s investment with results. The Eagles crushed the University of Kentucky in their first official match.
That’s not surprising when you consider the skill level of each team. RMU’s investment scored them some students extremely talented at League of Legends. Every player in the Eagle’s starting lineup is in Challenger, the highest tier of the League of Legends rankings. Kentucky fielded a team with one Platinum player, two Silver, and two Bronze—not even close to RMU’s level.
That’s without mentioning RMU’s infrastructure. While other college esports teams are essentially squads of amateurs coming together for love of the game and love of competition, clubs not even officially recognized by their schools, Robert Morris University has all the trappings of a professional squad: coaches, a film room, multiple teams for in-house practice and an increased pressure to perform for starting players.
The Eagles’ early dive into esports is paying off—it has allowed them to cherry pick some of the top talent out there, and garner attention, like the HBO show, for being ahead of the curve. It’s also an important development for esports itself. RMU is providing a blueprint for what could serve as a structured amateur esports scene in North America, similar to other major sports, something sorely lacking compared to other regions.
It sounded like a gimmick when Robert Morris University revealed its plan to add video game players to their athletic program. But now that the thirty players are donning RMU jackets, taking to the gymnasium in front of the school band, and winning matches, it’s all too real.
Even HBO can’t ignore these “nerds.”
Screengrab via HBOsports/YouTube