By Tolly Taylor
Steve Balachowski threw another strike, turned around and continued his explanation of “League of Legends.” His coach looked confused. He had never heard of it. The senior finished his description and then finished bowling a 217.
“I went home and looked it up to see what it’s all about,” said Mike Paskvan, Balachowski’s bowling coach at Notre Dame College Prep.
That the popular video game is now the source of scholarships to five colleges nationally, including Chicago’s Robert Morris University, caught Paskvan by surprise. But along with a bowling scholarship, it will pay for most of Balachowski’s college tuition.
Between bowling and Legends, Robert Morris is currently offering to pay 55 percent of his college costs, but might end up covering as much as 90 percent of his tuition or roughly $30,000 based on future performance. For a little over a year, Balachowski has been playing Legends, a multiplayer online battle arena game that is one of five eSports played at the college level.
His two talents, while both niche sports, have varying – and in one case, perhaps shocking – levels of popularity.
The 2015 Professional Bowlers Association Elias Cup finals on ESPN attracted 670,000 viewers on average, the largest audience in PBA history, according to pba.com. By comparison, more people watched the 2015 “League of Legends” Championship last year than watched the NBA Finals or World Series, the audience peaking at over 32 million viewers, according to leagueoflegends.com.
But despite the similar level of popularity to mainstream sports – an estimated 27 million play Legends every day – the recruiting process of the Robert Morris team, also ranked first in the U.S., is unorthodox.
“It’s one of the more difficult things about this new world that’s developing,” said Jason Greenglass, an assistant Legends coach at Robert Morris. “We will track players through their [rating] …or we’ll be [contacted] by players who are interested in the program. In our world, you can’t go to a high school game and sit in the bleachers. We can’t physically go to another location and observe that player in the competitive environment.”
Though both sports will help pay for college, Balachowski admitted his parents have a preference between his two sports.
“Bowling for my parents is more of a priority,” Balachowski said. “They don’t necessarily like video games. They would rather see me excel at something like bowling, which they know I love and put my heart into.”
Just as recruitment for the two sports differs, so too do practice schedules. On weekdays from November through the end of January, Balachowski bowled with his high school team from 3 to 5 p.m. He averaged a 195 this season with a high of 269.
“He bowls all the time, even when he’s not bowling for school …,” said Vicki Balachowski, Steve’s mom. “He’s doing it even when he doesn’t have to. He loves to come on Fridays for $13 for all-you-can-bowl.”
His routine is precise.
When he’s not bowling on Fridays, it’s Legends time. Balachowski grabs a sub sandwich and a soft drink from work, Tony’s Fresh Market, before heading home. He finishes the sandwich by the time he pulls in the driveway at 9:30 p.m., and the Mountain Dew helps him power through the next five to six hours of Legends. The next morning at 7:30 a.m., he has his daily breakfast of milk and cookies – always six cookies — and goes back upstairs to continue playing in his bedroom. If it’s an average Saturday, climbing those 12 stairs might be the biggest workout of his day. He’ll sit at his desk and play roughly six hours on his two monitors, but sometimes as many as 13 hours.
Though Paskvan described Balachowski as a highly intense bowler, it’s not always easy to tell. Especially when he’s bowling well, Balachowski high-fives teammates and celebrates with them after strikes, a smile rarely leaving his face.
According to one of his Legends teammates, Balachowski’s video game persona isn’t quite so carefree.
“He’s balls to the wall,” said Ryan Whelan, a 13-year-old who lives in British Columbia and met Balachowski through Legends. “He likes to go in and just have fun. He’s aggressive.”
That aggressiveness has served him well. Robert Morris’ scholarships are given based on skill, and there are seven levels of proficiency in Legends competition, from beginner to most experienced: Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Master and Challenger. To get the second-tier scholarship for which Balachowski has already qualified, a player must be at the Platinum level. To get the top-tier scholarship, he must be at Diamond or above.
Right now, Balachowski is on track to receive the scholarship that covers 35 percent of tuition, or about $12,000. The top tier, the one he could earn if he improves his rank by September, covers twice that.
That top-tier scholarship could help, especially considering how expensive both sports are.
Balachowski owns six bowling balls, an average number for his high school team. In total, he spent roughly $900 on them, with three of them scented: one smells of chocolate, another apple cider and the third one—his favorite—cinnamon.
Legends is free, but the Acer Aspire V5 laptop he uses, along with the two monitors, mouse, and wireless keyboard were not. Even without the add-ons, the laptop alone cost about $500.
Despite the hefty price tags, Balachowski has managed to save money from his job at Tony’s Fresh Market.
“[The money is] all his, and he’s very responsible,” said Steve’s mother. “He was probably there six, seven months, and he hadn’t spent a dime of what he made.”
“I wanted to ask him for a loan,” she joked.
But Balachowski isn’t just protective of his money. In Legends, he plays support, meaning it’s his job to shepherd one of the more powerful characters around the game map.
“[Balachowski plays] one of the roles that can save the team’s butt,” Whelan said. “It’s one of the skill roles, so it takes a good player to play that role.”
On the bowling lane, it’s his resourcefulness that distinguishes the right-hander.
With a traditional five-step approach, his throw usually rolls straight before hooking violently at the last moment. But if Balachowski’s not bowling well with one hand on a certain day, he has other options.
“He can also bowl two-handed, so he’s versatile,” said Nico Rivera, a junior on the Notre Dame bowling team. “When it hits the pocket, the hook potential knocks more pins down. I know he loves using it.”
Though he can be flexible bowling with one hand or two, Balachowski’s match-day routines are rigid.
“I have to take my belt off, untuck my shirt, put the [bowling] balls back in the bag the same way, and I wear the same [khaki] pants every time,” Balachowski said. “[If I don’t do one of those things] I get put [off] pretty easily.”
Legends is different. He doesn’t follow any superstitions, but he always enjoys himself.
In a recent practice, Balachowski’s character kept repeating the same phrase.
“Life is good, no?” it said with a Spanish accent.
For Balachowski, it certainly seems like it.