Increasing eSports competition shows its viability as a career path
The face of eSports is changing across the world, with the first university adding it to their athletic program
“Don’t stay up late playing video games,” many parents warn. “Focus on your studies — good grades get good jobs.”
But for political theory and constitutional democracy sophomore Marcus Muallem, analyzing "League of Legends" competitive play is precisely what he studies. And it’s already landed him a head coaching position with Australian team Legacy eSports and put him in the running for the coaching staff at Robert Morris University Illinois.
“League of Legends,” or “LoL”, is a multiplayer online battle arena video game. The game is free to play and its premise, put simply, is that two teams of five battle against each other in a struggle to destroy a building within the opposing team’s base.
Each player controls a character who possesses special powers, and as the game progresses, their avatars get stronger through unlocked abilities and purchased weapons and armor.
In fall 2014, RMU became the first North American university to add the game to their athletic program, complete with student-athlete full-ride scholarship offerings and an arena equipped with 35 high performance gaming computers for the team’s use only.
The private university’s addition of an eSports team to their athletics program highlights the growing acceptance and fan base of competitive gaming in the U.S.
Although a competitive gaming sports team might be far off for MSU, the campus is a hub of the excitement and interest felt on the international scene, with some students playing in clubs and competing against other universities.
When Muallem told his parents about freezing his schedule at MSU if offered the RMU coaching position, they had trouble understanding the career choice.
“It’s just a totally new concept to them, that you can get paid for playing or coaching, (that you can get paid) being in the industry of video games,” he said.
Unsure of whether his major suited him and debating a switch, he said the chance to take a break from college and pursue a career as an eSports coach came as a relief.
“When the opportunity came up, it was such a huge blessing,” he said. “I kind of wanted to break from college and I had spent so much time on this game — analyzing it, playing it, coaching it, learning it — that I wanted to take it into the next step.”
It’s unknown what RMU might pay Muallem, and he said he isn’t allowed to divulge the additional earnings he makes from coaching the Australian team at night, but he did estimate both salaries combined would be enough to rent an apartment and have spending money.
Muallem said he hopes to become a professional coach, someone who works with teams in the League Championship Series, the top-tier “LoL” league.
Professional coaches are paid about $25,000 a season by Riot Games, the company that makes the game, according to a Riot Games statement. But this number doesn’t include money from sponsorships and tournament prizes — at the Season 3 World Championship at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the winning team left with $1 million.
Although suspending studies to pursue a career in competitive gaming seems like a big leap, a former student did just that.
Alumnus and MSU LoL Club founder Matt Ao played with Lam when he was at MSU and said he remembers discussing the decision with him.
“One day he told he was going to drop out of school to become pro,” Ao said. “I told him it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard and he should definitely not do it. He ended up doing it anyways and became pro and became super successful.”
Lam, who has more than 241,000 followers on Twitter, lives with his team at a , Ao said.
Professional gamers often live together, sometimes with their coaches and analysts, to facilitate day-to-day playing. Top-level players rarely work, as the income from sponsorships, prize money, live-stream advertising and Riot Games monetary support are enough to live off of.
The eSports following in the U.S. has seen huge growth over the last decade, especially after the emergence of online streaming services such as Twitch.tv, which allow people to watch their favorite players skirmish and their favorite teams compete in tournaments.
More than 67 million people play “LoL” every month and 27 million play every day, according to Riot Games figures. Even the U.S. Air Force Reserve has jumped on board by sponsoring Cloud9, according to a team press release.
Muallem said he sees potential for eSports in the U.S. to become even bigger because of its entertainment value and the popularity of other sports.
To those skeptical of eSports taking a place among traditional sports, Muallem asked if anyone in the 1800s ever foresaw kicking a ball around as a profession that would make millions of dollars.
Given the niche market for eSports and the profitable sports programs at MSU, a competitive gaming team could be a perfect fit, if not for NCAA limitations, said Robert Morris University Illinois associate athletic director Kurt Melcher, who spearheaded the addition of an eSports program at his university.
After implementing the program, representatives from 30 to 35 universities reached out to Melcher, inquiring about the program, he said. And some of these universities are Bowl Championship Series schools. Melcher said he cannot divulge their names.
“I can tell you it’s coming, and it’s going to come in a big way too,” he said.
At MSU the gaming scene features several clubs devoted to games such as “Super Smash Bros.” and “LoL”. And although the competitive play lacks the massive cash prizes and celebrity status of the big leagues, the on-campus tournaments and scrimmages still promise thrills and new-found friendships.
Fifty-five players, with many more spectating, turned out for the MSU LoL Club’s tournament March 28 to compete for in-game currency and the title of victor. Amid the empty halls of the Engineering Building on a Saturday, shouts and music could be heard from within the ad hoc gaming arena set up inside a classroom.
That energy and enthusiasm for the sport, MSU LoL Club president and electrical engineering junior Sean Irwin said, is what he loves about people getting together to play the game.
“People stand up and yell and scream — usually only when good stuff happens, when bad stuff happens people usually tend to not talk, but the other team will be loud and that psyches you out,” Irwin said. “It’s kind of like a huge party, you know? You’re all together just hanging out. It’s super loud all the time, the music’s playing and everybody’s talking to everybody.”
Following tournaments and Thursday night club meetings, the participants head out to a diner for grub, post-game socializing and maybe a little trash talk too, Irwin said.
Travis Conte, MSU Smash Club president and actuarial science sophomore, echoed that notion. Because he, like most, started playing competitively with friends. Gaming and socializing go hand-in-hand, he said.
The club held a “Super Smash Bros.” tournament March 21 that brought out nearly 60 contestants, from MSU students to people who know a few members and just love the game.
In a Communication Arts and Sciences Building classroom, where TVs and gaming systems sat on tables lining every wall, participants came to have a good time and compete in a game that’s also gained some international eSports traction.
“Most people came knowing they won’t win,” Conte said. “They’re coming to play the game.”
Macomb resident and high school senior Adrian Headley caught a ride to MSU for the tournament. He knew a few students from playing online, some of whom even coached him.
Although the thought of becoming a professional “Smash” player excites him, the problem of money and the slim chance at making it ward him off, he said. But, regardless, through the game he has made friends and maintained relationships with those who have moved away.
“I don’t think I would have as good of friends as I do now if I never went to ‘Smash,’” he said.