AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The world of college athletics is changing and for some teams in Texas, the future is now. Electronic sports, or eSports, are becoming increasingly popular at college campuses across the country and it can pay to play those competitive video games.
“Not a lot of people know my name yet…yet,” said 19-year-old David Willis, a freshman majoring in mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin.
“I had a dream as a little kid of going to the Olympics to be a soccer player,” Willis said with a laugh. It’s funny because he is not very athletic, something he had to figure out the hard way. Willis quit soccer before high school, so he never thought he could play on a college team or be considered a college athlete.
“We’ve got this match against Texas A&M that my dad is really excited for,” Willis said. But at the start of the school year, his parents didn’t know what to think when Willis tried out for UT’s eSports team. “I’m kind of proving them wrong a little bit by earning scholarships by playing the game.”
The game is “League of Legends,” an online video game that requires quick hands, teamwork and a lot of strategy. To win, players have to destroy the other team’s base, while defending their own. They are unofficially called the “Longhorns” because the team is not affiliated with the university, but they are all UT students and members of the Longhorn Gaming Association.
The six-man team has two managers, a coach and an off-campus gaming house, which kind of looks like a fraternity house but there are long cafeteria tables setup in the living room that are lined with computers. The gaming house is where the team practices four days a week and where they compete against other college teams on the weekends.
The Longhorns beat out about 150 teams in the southern division to make it to the Elite Eight. They are now in a seven week-long, round robin style tournament, competing for both the title and tuition money. Each player already has won $1,000 scholarship, and that’s just for making in through the qualifying tournament. This year, the team that takes the top spot will win a $30,000 scholarship for each individual player.
• 1st place: $30,000
• 2nd place: $15,000
• 3rd-4th place: $7,500
• 5th-8th: $4,000
• 9th-16th: $2,000
• 17th-32nd: $1,000
Two weeks into the tournament, the Longhorns have beaten two teams and remain undefeated. The final four teams will compete at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“It would be really cool to play in front of hundreds of thousands of people,” Willis said. “I’m just so grateful that I get to do this and be a part of this at a time it’s getting so big.”
While eSports tackle the world of college athletics, the League of Legends CEO said he believes the video game will be an Olympic sport within his lifetime. An idea that gives Willis and the next generation of gamers a different dream to chase. “Instead of having to be the fastest, or the strongest, or the most agile kid—if you’ve got a quick brain and fast fingers you can put your effort toward being the best at something and get some recognition for that,” Willis said.
The company that makes the game provides the scholarship money, but colleges around the country have started to fund their own scholarships to attract the top eSports players and some schools have even started scouting players.