Boston — In some ways, they’re like typical college athletes. They’re on varsity teams. They train for hours between classes. Some get hefty scholarships. But instead of playing sports, they’re playing video games.
Varsity gaming teams with all the trappings of sports teams are becoming more common as colleges tap into the rising popularity of competitive gaming. After initially keeping its distance, even the NCAA is now considering whether it should play a role.
Fifty U.S. colleges have established varsity gaming teams over the past three years, often offering at least partial scholarships and backed by coaches and game analysts, much like any other college team.
“We’re talking to at least three or four new schools every single day. We did not expect this type of reaction,” said Michael Brooks, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate eSports, a group that represents more than 40 schools with varsity gaming teams.
Competitive gaming, often called esports, has become a booming entertainment industry over the past decade, with flashy professional events that fill sports arenas and draw millions of online viewers.
The biggest tournaments offer prize pools upward of $20 million, attracting elite gamers who wage battle in popular video games such as “League of Legends” and “Overwatch.”
Until recently, most colleges were slow to meet demand for a collegiate version, experts say, but interest has come in a flurry over the past year as more schools see a chance to benefit from the industry’s growth.
Many colleges hope to replicate the success they’ve seen at Robert Morris University in Illinois, a small school that launched the country’s first varsity team in 2014 and has since become a national powerhouse.
But it’s also catching on at some bigger schools, including the University of Utah, which says its new varsity teams are the first at any school in the five major athletics conferences.
Although most collegiate tournaments are now organized by third-party gaming leagues or video-game companies, the rapid expansion has caught the attention of the NCAA. The league’s board of governors will discuss its “potential role” in esports at an October meeting.
Supporters of collegiate gaming say varsity teams can bring national exposure to colleges at a relatively low cost, with the potential to land sponsorships that bring costs even lower.
The University of California, Irvine, opened a new $250,000 “eSports arena” last year with financial backing from sponsors.
“Compared to traditional sports programs, it’s more affordable,” said Brooks, of the collegiate esports association. “At the end of day all we’re talking about is a souped-up computer lab.”
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