A “League” of their own: RMU uses old blueprint to pioneer college esports

Arena Corner
In addition to the computers themselves, it is important to have equipment like comfortable, supportive chairs to facilitate extensive time spent at a station. (Nick Zazulia/Medill)

By Nick Zazulia

“Video games aren’t a sport.”

That has been a common refrain heard during the rise of esports. ESPN President John Skipper even famously declared it last year … seven months before his network began broadcasting tournaments.

And rise they have, to the point that the 2014 League of Legends Championship in Seoul, South Korea, had more viewers worldwide, at 27 million, than any sporting event of the year except the Super Bowl.

They have risen to the point that Robert Morris University, which in 2014 became the first college with an esports program under its athletic department, is now one of at least five that exists or has been announced.

Maybe it doesn’t matter if people call gamers athletes.

Because semantics aside, RMU’s esports program in its nascent stage looks an awful lot like any traditional athletic program. Rigorous practices, intense pep talks, pregame strategy sessions and postgame celebrations are all commonplace.

RMU Arena side view
The esports arena at RMU has gaming machines set up in banks of five so teams can sit together during competition. (Nick Zazulia/Medill)

The program has 54 student-athletes who receive partial scholarships for athletics that cover up to 70 percent of tuition, according to associate athletic director Kurt Melcher. The majority of the students are on one of five “League of Legends” teams.

Jason Greenglass, a Chicago-area attorney who serves as an assistant coach and media coordinator for the program, explained that Robert Morris’ goal is to channel student passions into a more engaged student body and higher graduation rates, regardless of whether the passion is for football or competitive gaming.

“We want to serve this underserved population, give them an environment where they feel like they can be recognized and be successful,” Greenglass said.

Full Arena Interior
RMU’s esports arena has variable lighting and a projector to allow video review as necessary in the course of training. (Nick Zazulia/Medill)

To that end, RMU has brought in close to a dozen coaches and support staff and built an esports arena at its downtown campus for practices and competitions.

There is one varsity squad, whose ultimate goal is winning the North American Collegiate Championship tournament and its $100,000 prize. The others compete primarily in the Collegiate Starleague for which the prizes are more modest.

Accordingly, most coaches focus not just on winning in-game, but preparing players for life, which you’ll hear stressed by athletic programs around the country.

“I keep in mind the needs of the players as students and to help them find a balance of how you can still find time to get better,” Greenglass said. “But you do need to get your GPA, too. And (there is value in) having someone there to remind them of the journey that they’re on beyond the (Summoner’s) Rift (location of battles in the game), because there will come a time when ‘League of Legends’ is no longer part of your life’s journey.”

Coaches originally scout potential recruits in high school with the help of sites such as na.op.gg, which keeps in-depth statistics about players and their ranks. RMU will tell recruits they should reach certain ranks to be considered for scholarships.

Freshman information technology major Min Chen, who goes by “Saber” in the arena and competes for Greenglass’ Maroon team, went through that process last year.

“I contacted Coach Ferris (Ganzman), and he told me details,” he said. “One of the requirements was to get to diamond (rank) to get the full amount of scholarship, so I hit it as soon as possible.”

RMU Eagles esports
Robert Morris University put its money where its mouth is, building an entire esports arena at its downtown campus. (Nick Zazulia/Medill)

Coming to RMU with gaming experience and quick fingers doesn’t necessarily mean players have well-developed communication and teamwork skills, though, which Greenglass sees as an important area to address.

“You’re never solo-queuing at the office,” he said, borrowing game parlance to refer to joining a random game as an individual instead of with a team. “Those (team-averse) types of people don’t generally see themselves getting considered for promotion. You’re part of a team when you join McDonald’s or Bank of America or an engineering firm. In the real world, your hard skills get you in the door, but your soft skills get you considered for promotion, so I try to work with my players on their soft skills all the time.”

Greenglass said that he starts with communication drills and analytics to determine who communicates in which fashion. That also helps him assign game roles accordingly.

What about when he wants to focus a player on a specific skill? He likes to start by having the player take notes while watching another player who is particularly good at that facet.

“After the game, I’ll talk with them about why they think (that player) did or didn’t do things,” Greenglass said. “Then, they’ll sit down and I’ll have drills prepared for them to develop those individual mechanical skills.”

When practice is over, players are left with homework.

Rachel Zurawski, or “Razur,” is a 20-year-old graphic design major from Woodstock who plays on RMU’s Gold team. She said her coach, Adam Farm, requires that his players devote a certain amount of time to practicing the champions, or characters, he designates each week.

League of Legends
RMU’s Maroon team secured a victory over a team from the University of Tennessee in a close-fought, 58-minute match with the highlighted champion, Ziggs, making the difference in the end. (Nick Zazulia/Medill)

“Coaches will assign things, like (the champion) Soraka is really strong right now, so (they’ll say), ‘I want 10 Soraka games by the end of the week,’” Rachel said. “Adam says, ‘If you want to play (the champion) Lux (in the) support (role), or if you want to play some other champion in practice, OK, then you need to play what we need you to on your own time.’ ”

That kind of scheduling can take a toll on what had been recreational activity.

“It becomes less fun. It becomes more work than it is play,” Zurawski said. “You see things that you didn’t see before (while playing), even when the coaches aren’t helping you. But being involved in the program makes you want to go look at more things. It makes you want to get better.”

There is no governing body analogous to the NCAA to oversee the student-athletes, so it falls to the coaches to police their own players’ behavior and eligibility.

At Robert Morris, coaches have access to their players’ grades and meet with professors to ensure that athletes are performing in the classroom.

If there is a problem with class or attendance, coaches will hold a one-on-one with the student. Each team has substitute players who can fill in for starters without disrupting team chemistry.

“That’s the benefit of having subs,” Greenglass said. “That allows that one person to slot out and we can give them more time and say, ‘You have a set study hall on Tuesdays and Thursdays.’ ”

The online card game “Hearthstone,” a spinoff of Blizzard Entertainment’s popular Warcraft series, is one of the newer additions to RMU’s esports program. (Tim Bartel/Creative Commons)

Now in its second season, RMU’s esports program has grown swiftly, having expanded to include teams for “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft,” “Dota 2” and “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.” A number of other colleges have called asking for advice on forming their own programs.

The video game industry now brings in more revenue than Hollywood, according to The Entertainment Software Association and PricewaterhouseCoopers, respectively. Amazon purchased Twitch.tv (a video game streaming service used for broadcasting tournaments) last year in a deal that, per the New York Times, was worth $1.1 billion.

So whether you think video games are ‘real sports’ or not, you should probably get used to having esports alongside your normal dose of football and basketball. It doesn’t look like they’ll be going anywhere soon.

Photo at top: In addition to the computers themselves, it is important to have equipment like comfortable, supportive chairs to facilitate extensive time spent  at a station. (Nick Zazulia/Medill)