East Lansing — Scholarships to play video games.
It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Eight students on Michigan State University’s League of Legends team had them last semester. Most got $5,000.
Granted, the money wasn’t from MSU. More than a dozen colleges, from Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh to the University of California-Irvine, offer scholarships to elite video gamers. MSU isn’t among them.
The League of Legends players on campus received their grants from the game’s creator — Riot Games.
Don Nakashima is gunning for one of those scholarships next semester.
He knows a thing or two about juggling school and athletics. Prior to transferring to MSU his junior year, Nakashima played Division I soccer for Detroit Mercy.
Nakashima still sees himself as a student-athlete, though he realizes many people don’t see anything you do sitting in a chair in front of a computer as a sport.
“There’s a lot of doubt because of the way gamers are portrayed and (video games) being seen as a stress-reliever,” he said.
The dedication required — in time, planning and teamwork — is very real, Nakashima said. The computer science senior estimates he plays close to eight hours of League of Legends daily.
But, then, he’s ranked among the top 500 players in North America. He needs to stay sharp.
League of Legends is an online multi-player game, among the most popular games played today. Players clash on a digital battlefield filled with defensive buildings and hostile creatures. Each player picks a unique character from a roster of more than 130 and, in collaboration with their team, works to demolish enemy buildings en route to destroying their opponent’s base.
MSU doesn’t have any immediate plans to make competitive gaming a varsity sport, said Paul Schager, executive associate athletics director for external operations.
“But someone 100 years ago probably said the same thing about football,” he said. “You never know where it will go, who knows?”
MSU’s League of Legends team was one of 12 that competed in the inaugural Big Ten Network League of Legends season in January. Not every Big Ten school played along. Penn State denied its student team the ability to play, citing a desire to protect its logos and time constraints.
MSU’s team finished 1-4, which was a disappointment to Connor McDougall, a junior who joined the team in 2015 during his freshman year.
McDougall said he and Nakashima are in agreement about this year’s goal: To be the best team in North America.
“But we gotta start with being No. 1 in the Big Ten,” McDougall said.
Two dozen members of the League of Legends club at MSU — which includes the competitive team — gathered inside a Communication Arts and Sciences game development lab, playing against one another to identify the top players for the competitive roster.
They were relegated to a corner of the room, thanks to a swell of students who came out for the MSU Overwatch club’s meeting. Overwatch is a first-person shooting game released in 2016.
Overwatch and League of Legends are two of the half-dozen games played by members of the MSU’s E-Sports Student Association, according to its president, Steven Truong. The vast majority of members are engineering students who try to gather at the end of each month to play games together in person.
“Nothing beats playing games together,” he said.
When Nakashima was growing up, he always had to play soccer or do his homework before he was allowed to play video games.
“Especially with traditional Japanese parents, they looked down on gaming,” Nakashima said.
Their attitude has changed in recent years, especially now that they see how passionate he is about succeeding in competitive gaming. He’s cultivating a bigger audience on Twitch — a website allowing viewers to watch others play video games — and hopes to play League of Legends professionally after graduation.
For now though, it’s about bringing trophies back to East Lansing and promoting the next group of gamers.
“I want to take the team from obscurity and drive each person to be better.”