In football or basketball, a talented youngster can follow a well-defined path from high school prodigy to professional star, usually by honing their abilities in the NCAA. That's not the case in esports, where promising college-age players must risk everything for a chance at an unlikely career.
Developing better infrastructure in high school and college will be integral to esports' long-term stability. Luckily, as the Big 10 Network gears up to broadcast collegiate League of Legends in 2017, it's clear that progress is under way.
The Uncertain Fate of the Would-Be Esports Star
It goes without saying that most aspiring esports players never get anywhere. The vast majority soon find themselves having invested thousands of hours into a game that will never pay their bills -- but unlike NCAA players, they don't have scholarships to fall back on.
In such an uncertain climate, how can anyone be expected to take a chance on esports?
#Riot's partnership with the Big Ten Network isn't just a money-making scheme -- it's an attempt to begin stabilizing the pipeline of up-and-coming American League of Legends players. Starting on January 30, matches will be broadcast on BTN2Go and watch.lolesports.com, featuring teams from 12 of the Big 10's 14 schools (yes, for those unfamiliar with American collegiate sports conferences, the Big 10 does in fact include 14 schools). As ESPN reports, each player will receive a $5,000 scholarship just for participating.
Collegiate Esports: A Plague Sweeping the Nation? We Certainly Hope So
The Big 10 league may be just the beginning. "We've seen a lot more interest from senior level people at the universities," Riot's collegiate esports headmaster Michael Sherman told ESPN. "We could see a domino effect where one school offers a scholarship and the others follow. We think a lot of conference networks will take a look at this opportunity as well."
Intercollegiate esports have a long and rich history, with organizations like the Collegiate Starleague dating back to the late 2000s. But though such efforts have reached considerable size—the CSL features hundreds of teams across eight games, including League of Legends, StarCraft II, DOTA2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Hearthstone—they had never generated an appreciable amount of prize money or mainstream media excitement until Blizzard launched Heroes of the Dorm in 2015.
Blizzard's Collegiate Esports Ambitions
Like Riot, #Blizzard is serious about building a comprehensive collegiate esports infrastructure. They partner with the intercollegiate organization Tespa to sponsor on-campus events and dish out free gear associated with Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch, StarCraft II and Hearthstone. Overall, Tespa has issued $1.29M in scholarship prize money.
Heroes of the Dorm, an intercollegiate Heroes of the Storm competition, aired on ESPN2 in April 2015. For the first time, collegiate esports appeared alongside the NBA playoffs, the NHL, and Sunday Night Baseball. Though the event was mostly a publicity stunt for Blizzard's new game, it was enough of a success that ESPN brought it back in April 2016. Blizzard produced a one-hour documentary about the second Heroes of the Dorm event, focusing on Arizona State University and their clean 3-0 sweep of the grand finals.
It makes sense that companies like Riot and Blizzard are investing so heavily in intercollegiate esports. These publishers recognize that competitive gaming will be a tremendous source of revenue in the years to come, and the best way to ensure the lasting popularity of their titles is to start converting players early. College is the first step - but don't be surprised if developer-sponsored League of Legends and Overwatch leagues start popping up at a high school level, too.
Would you watch collegiate esports? Would you compete, or do you have experience competing? Share your thoughts in the comments!