Big Ten Network enriches students with launch of e-sports tournament

BTN studio
A Big Ten Network studio

By Yifan Wu

The next Northwestern Wildcat starring on Big Ten Network might not be Justin Jackson or Scottie Lindsey, but someone playing “League of Legends,” the most popular computer game in the world.

Big Ten Network and Riot Games, the creator and developer of “League of Legends,” announced last week that 12 of 14 member schools will be competing in a season-long tournament. The partnership gave e-sports clubs in the conference many reasons to celebrate, including scholarships of $5,000 for each of the 72 players participating.

“We know there is a lot of interest in e-sports on campus on Big Ten schools,” said Mark Silverman, president of Big Ten Network. “And as the e-sports world evolves and grows, I think there is going to be more and more crossover with Big Ten sports.”

The tournament gives e-sports clubs the legitimacy for which they have fought, said James Yoon, the president of Northwestern e-sports club. The Wildcats’ student organization couldn’t include Northwestern in its name – it was Evanston collegiate e-sports club — until last December.

“I see a future for our organization, and our future partnership with the athletics department,” Yoon said. “We will do more for the community together …The players on the team are excited that they get the opportunity to compete and to represent the school.”

Matches will be available on BTN2Go, the network’s streaming and on-demand service, leading up to a televised championship game in March.

Last April, the “League of Legends” teams from Ohio State and Michigan State had the first taste of fighting for school pride when BTN broadcast their exhibition match at Penny Arcade Expo (PAX East) in Boston.

For players, competing on television means getting more exposure as e-sports athletes and recognition from their schools’ athletic departments.

“I was really happy,” said Richard Flagg, a player for Ohio State. “Last year, it was just a single show match, and it was right before finals week. I am glad it’s progressing. I told my parents about the scholarship yesterday, and it will help them pay my tuition.”

Michael Sherman, the head of Riot’s competitive collegiate program, said it all started when the Penn State e-sports club tried to organize a Big Ten tournament. However, Penn State’s school administration,  as well as Nebraska’s, told Riot it needed more time for evaluation and would not participate in this season.

“It is my hope that Penn State will take this time to assess the strong e-sports culture here and come back strong next season,” said Dylan Beal, president of Penn State e-sports club. “Penn State was Big Ten champs in football, and we have the same drive to do the same in e-sports.”

Sherman and his colleagues worked closely with “League of Legends” clubs in the Big Ten, using the Ohio State-Michigan State exhibition as a test run.

“After that we began to talk about partnership and to have the games on a bigger platform like BTN,” Sherman said. “Big Ten schools have the largest ‘League of Legends’ clubs in the U.S., and the teams are well-represented in the top 25 rankings. It makes sense from a competitive and viewership standpoint.”

Photo at top: A Big Ten Network studio.(Yifan Wu/Medill)