By Daniel Comer
The next big thing in college athletics is simmering beneath the city streets of downtown Chicago, tucked away in a basement full of computer science majors whose sweaty palms and beady eyes indicate they’ve been battling for hours.
Athletes or not, this team of Robert Morris University (RMU) esports players is poised to challenge conventional thought and shake up the future of college athletics, one scholarship “athlete” at a time.
Among the sea of over-the-ear headsets and empty Red Bull cans at the team’s training facility in downtown Chicago sits senior Jesus Coll, who currently ranks in the top 0.01 percent of League of Legends players in North America and is the last remaining esports athlete from RMU’s historic 2014 recruitment class, which was the first to receive athletic scholarships for competitive gaming in the U.S.
“I haven’t really thought much about the historical significance,” Coll said. “All I know is if it wasn’t for the scholarship, I wouldn’t be here.”
Coll, originally from Córdoba, Argentina, began playing video games when he was 5 years old. His game of choice back then was the strategic, maze-based Bomberman, which his older brother taught him how to play using an emulator on their antiquated – even for 1999 – desktop computer.
Seven years ago, while Coll was still in high school, his brother came home from college for a few days and invited Jesus to one of their friend’s houses to play the relatively new – and then-trendy – battle arena game, League of Legends.
“It hooked me right when we started,” Coll said. “We played all night that first time. Right when I got home I downloaded it and played on Skype with my brother and his friends pretty much every day after that.”
Coll spent the next few years developing his battle skills and joining semi-professional League of Legends squads throughout Argentina.
He took classes at the National University of Córdoba for a couple semesters after high school, but never felt comfortable there and considered gaming professionally full-time before learning about RMU’s plan to begin offering esports scholarships in 2014.
After corresponding with former head coach Ferris Ganzman via Skype and email for a few weeks that fall, a spot opened up for Coll and he joined the RMU esports team in December 2014 with two 50-percent scholarships dedicated to tuition and housing.
“I felt like it was a dream come true,” Coll said. “At first, I was so hyped I would’ve taken it without the money. But then I realized I couldn’t afford to come without it.”
Coll’s mother raised him and his four siblings by herself in the small city of Villa Dolores, where the children grew up working multiple hours a week at her costume rental shop because she couldn’t afford to hire outside help.
Most of Villa Dolores was underdeveloped at the time, and the only source of internet came from a self-taught LAN engineer who monopolized the market and charged high prices for subpar wireless speeds.
There was no major internet provider, no innovative gaming technology. Coll’s dream job throughout his childhood was to own an ice cream truck.
The juxtaposition between the room Coll’s sitting in now – full of career aspirations and the most up-to-date gaming hardware money can buy – and the village where his dreams were limited by economic circumstance, is not lost on him.
“We struggled a lot growing up,” he said. “We didn’t have anything. When I came to the U.S., my idea was to get a degree, finish it, make my family happy. My goal right now is to get a scholarship for a master’s program. My second option is to get a job in esports or on the computer side.”
Current RMU esports director Jose Espin credits the program for providing athletic scholarship opportunities to kids like Jesus who don’t have the physical abilities to succeed in mainstream sports, but still want to earn tuition money for engaging in competitive hobbies at the collegiate level.
“So many students have told us college was not a thing for them,” Espin said. “It was not on their radar. Our program motivated students to get up and send an application. It also gave them a home and sense of community.”
Since RMU began offering scholarships for gaming in 2014, more than 100 colleges have created their own competitive esports athletic teams, and many have begun earmarking scholarship dollars for a sport expected to skyrocket in popularity in the near future.
For Jesus – and millions of gamers like him – collegiate esports scholarships opened a new world of opportunities that didn’t exist before 2014.
“I’m so grateful for the experience,” he said. “I can’t really understand how amazing it is right now because I’m living it, but I know my friends in Argentina keep telling me it’s a dream and now they want to do it.”
And with gaming dreams becoming realities more often than ever, perhaps they’ll be able to.