Chicago’s Robert Morris University is the first university in the United States to offer scholarships for League of Legends, Riot Games’ absurdly-popular MOBA that has also become a viewership sensation. With this move, RMU could be changing the face of not just eSports, but college sports altogether.
RMU is allocating about $450,000 for “30 or so” annual scholarships to the private university in Chicago’s Loop district, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune. They’re literally blocks away from other Chicago institutions like DePaul University and Roosevelt University, so they have stiff competition seconds away from them, and would need to do something unique like this. It can help create the “enriched education” they want, but also bring them new students.
But as well, it could provide an interesting opportunity for universities like them to increase their public profile in ways that traditional athletics are failing at. The NCAA and NAIA, the latter of which RMU is a member of, do not sponsor any eSports the way they do basketball and football. League of Legends as a competitive sport is growing in popularity: the 2013 World Championships were watched by 32 million people in total and 8.5 million people consecutively at its peak, and Riot has launched a collegiate championship in North America. I’d venture that a collegiate LoL championship could easily outclass the popularity of any college sport that isn’t basketball or football in the very near future.
What a school like RMU, which isn’t in the top-flight NCAA for collegiate athletics, can do is to use their money more efficiently. By spending less than it would take to build out a successful top-flight athletic program and the facilities necessary to do so (computer rooms are cheaper than gyms and arenas), it’s possible to spend relative peanuts to attract potential LoL prospects to a school. And there’s evidence in major collegiate sports that major victories increase applications. If collegiate championships elevate in popularity like professional ones have, a school like RMU could dramatically increase the profile of their university among a young and tech-savvy LoL viewerbase.
So while Robert Morris University might be the first school to offer scholarships, it won’t be the last, because of the untapped possibility it represents for universities.