By Tolly Taylor
When Carl Leone’s father heard his son had received a scholarship to attend Robert Morris University, he didn’t believe it. After all, the scholarship was for video gaming.
“Just don’t give them any personal information, don’t give away your address, because this might be a scam,” Leone’s father, also named Carl, said he told his son at the time.
Leone had received a scholarship to play “League of Legends,” a multiplayer online battle arena game that is one of five eSports played at the college level. According to leagueoflegends.com, 32 million people watched the 2015 “League of Legends” championship, making it the second-most watched sporting event in the U.S. last year behind the Super Bowl. Robert Morris began giving scholarships for LoL and three other eSports in the 2014-15 academic year, the first U.S. college to do so.
— Geekletes (@Geekletes) August 28, 2015
There was just one problem with the scholarship offer to Leone: it wasn’t enough.
Robert Morris gave out 35 eSports scholarships after receiving over 2,000 applications the first year, but there were two tiers. The second tier, the one Leone received, covered 35 percent of tuition, or about $12,000. The top tier, the one that he needed, covered twice that.
“I was concerned,” Leone’s father said. “We were trying to figure out how we would make [the payments]. I didn’t think we could afford it.”
* * *
Before he was a sophomore with a B average at Robert Morris, Leone was a ninth grader trying to figure out which sport to play, now that hockey was too expensive. His dad had just lost his job as a call center manager, and Leone and his brother, James, had to quit the sport they had played since childhood.
James had just started playing LoL with a friend, and decided to include Carl. Carl loved it. On the eve of Black Friday in 2009, James and his then-girlfriend drove to Best Buy at midnight with Leone to wait for the 3 a.m. opening. With James’ help, Leone bought a $300 Compaq computer, the cheapest desktop in the store. It was simple and slow, but Leone could play LoL now. And that’s about all he did.
“At first, I was better than him in a few things, but then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he put the time and effort into it and he was way better than I was,” said James, 23, a delivery man for Pine Tree Lighting and Furniture in Lake Orion, Michigan. “I don’t want to admit it, but a couple months after that, especially when he played on my computer when there was no lag or graphical issues, he could beat me anytime he wanted to.”
When Leone wasn’t working as a part-time assistant at Pine Tree Lighting and Furniture or pranking his parents—he liked to put a rubber band on the kitchen sink hose, causing his mom to spray herself when she used it—he was playing LoL in the basement.
Friends would come over, and they’d play all night. But none of them were as good as Leone.
“The first time I realized that he had a legitimate shot at doing something with [League of Legends], he had three friends over,” his dad said. “His friends came upstairs at one point, and they said, ‘We just can’t believe how good Carl is.’”
* * *
Having just finished his freshman year at Oakland Community College in Auburn Hills, Michigan, Leone was planning to work full time at Pine Tree Lighting and Furniture. It was late at night in June 2014, and he was scanning Facebook when he saw a friend’s post: Robert Morris University was giving out scholarships for LoL. Leone didn’t hesitate. He emailed the school with his game information and received a call in early August.
According to Leone, the call went something like this:
“How do I determine how good you are?” the school representative asked.
“I’m Platinum level, just look up my [In Game Name],” Leone said. “It’s Freakenpope.”
“I’m the band teacher, I don’t know what that means,” the representative said.
“Well then why are you interviewing me?” Leone said.
Scholarships are given based on skill, and there are seven levels of proficiency in LoL competition, from beginner to most experienced: Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Master and Challenger. To get the second-tier scholarship, a player must be at the Platinum level. To get the top-tier scholarship, Diamond or above.
Fortunately for Leone, someone who did understand LoL verified his IGN, and the school told him a few days later that he had received the second-tier scholarship. After convincing his parents the scholarship wasn’t a scam, they celebrated together. But it was short lived. Leone had to confront the reality that even with the scholarship, he couldn’t afford Robert Morris.
He knew what he had to do: Quit his job.
“I was able to quit because I was living at home still and had some money saved up from working before that,” Leone said. “I knew if I reached Diamond, I could move up to the next scholarship.”
Leone spent the next three weeks averaging 10 to 12 hours of LoL per day.
“I had a girlfriend at the time, and she was not too happy with me,” said Leone, grinning.
He showed up at the Robert Morris special visit back day just for eSports players in early September. At the end of the day, as everyone was leaving, Leone walked up to Ferris Ganzman, the LoL varsity coach, and told him he had just reached Diamond. Leone didn’t really expect anything to happen, but he thought Ganzman should know.
“Well, then,” said Ganzman, according to Leone. “We’ll have to bump you up to the level one [scholarship].”
Simple as that.
* * *
It’s Feb. 18, a year and a half later, and Leone stays after his four-hour LoL practice to play extra. The business administration major mocks other teammates across the room and occasionally narrates the game he’s playing in a self-deprecating way. It’s going terribly, but he’s laughing. It’s a stark contrast from how he practices.
“He’s very competitive,” said Ryan Makely, Leone’s coach. “He probably puts in more hours than anyone on the team.”
The additional hours have paid off. Leone is on the second varsity team as a sophomore, meaning he’s already in position to move up to the top varsity team at some point in the next two years. The second-highest-rated sophomore at Robert Morris, Leone has dreams of going professional in LoL, a realistic goal according to Makely.
“If I could work in video production at Riot [Games], I’d do that over even going pro,” said Leone, referring to the company that created LoL.
“If I could do that, I’d never wake up in the morning upset about going to work.”