Last year, it was Robert Morris University in Chicago making headlines for launching a collegiate eSports program bolstered by scholarships. This year, a small school in mid-Missouri, Columbia College, is following suit with a scholarship eSports program of its own.
The program will launch in the fall of 2016 and will consist of twelve total players -- two teams of five with two alternates each, according to local news outlet KOMU, which broke the story over the weekend.
Most notably, the school's players will be offered scholarships.
Tom's Hardware spoke to Bryan Curtis, Intramural Coordinator and Facility Manager of Athletics at Columbia College and one of the individuals tasked with launching the school's program, to learn more.
Scholarships, And Building From Scratch
Curtis told us that one of the school's squads will be a sort of "varsity," and the other will be a sort of "JV," although they won't call them that. They will also make room for developing players that could eventually join the team.
Curtis would not specify how much the scholarships would be -- the school is still working on details -- but he did note that the amount of scholarship money per player will depend on their skill level, and he also indicated that these would not be full-ride scholarships. At best, they will likely start at 50 percent offers and dip lower from there. These budget-related decisions will likely be settled sometime in January of next year.
The team's players, and other students, faculty, and staff at the school, will be able to use the team's facility, which Curtis (et al) are currently calling the "game hut." The facility will house 12-13 gaming systems, as well as some consoles, and to a certain extent will serve as a gathering place for all gamers on campus -- a catalyst for creating a physical community within an otherwise often virtual one.
Presently, the building adjacent to campus that will become the gaming hut -- a grayish structure across from Columbia College's science building and soccer field -- is gutted, Curtis told me. Construction of the new space will begin as soon as possible.
The school's eSports team will compete in the Collegiate Starleague (CSL), playing the popular eSports title League of Legends. CSL also hosts StarCraft II, Dota 2, Hearthstone and CS:GO leagues; Columbia College may press into those at some point, but for now it's focused on LoL.
The first question anyone (us included) has about news like this is, "How?" How does a tiny college in the middle of Missouri get the notion to start an eSports program, let alone offer scholarships?
In a way, the stars have to align. For Columbia College, it started with the inauguration last year of a new president, Dr. Scott Dalrymple. Dalrymple is a gamer himself, and he ingratiated himself to his new student body in part with this (superb) hype video, wherein he challenges any student to take him on in Madden 15. The prize? Dalrymple would buy any victorious students' textbooks for a year.
Curtis told me that the feedback from this stunt was strong. "Prospective students loved the video game challenge," he said. "[The school] wanted to capitalize on that positive feedback." School officials met, brainstormed, and came away with a plan: eSports. With scholarship money.
Dalrymple the gamer, it seems, was easily sold on the prospect.
In addition to the extensive renovation of one of its buildings to house the upcoming gaming hut, Columbia College has some major ground yet to cover. It's in the process of looking into sponsorship opportunities from gaming gear makers, it still needs to finalize the details on the amounts of its scholarships, and perhaps most pressing of all, it needs to find a head coach. (If you're interested in the head coaching job, the school is currently accepting applications here. You're welcome.)
College eSports is growing; just a glance at CSL's site shows dozens upon dozens of schools participating in the leagues. Even so, scholarship money for these programs is scarce. We know of only four schools that offer scholarships at this time -- Columbia College (Columbia, MO), Robert Morris University (Chicago), the University of Maryville (St. Louis) and the University of Pikeville (Pikeville, KY).
Seth Colaner is the News Director at Tom's Hardware. He curates and edits the news channel and also writes on a variety of topics. He would have become a professional ultimate Frisbee player, but he was born 15 years too early.