Want An Athletic Scholarship, But Aren't Much For Sports? At Robert Morris University, You Can Just Play League of Legends

According to Robert-Morris University-Illinois, an athlete is an athlete, whether their playing field is physical or digital. The school recently added the first ever eSports sector to its athletics program. Basically, what that means is that if you're particularly skilled at video games, you'll be able to attend Robert-Morris on a sports scholarship. Awesome, right?

In addition to the eSports scholarships, the institution has joined the Collegiate StarLeague, an intercollegiate competitive gaming league. There, Robert Morris eSports athletes will compete against over one hundred other universities, including big names such as Arizona State, George Washington University and Harvard.According to associate athletic director Kurt Melcher, this change isn't completely without precedent.

"The sports culture at RMU is unique," he explained to Polygon. "We have all the major sports: our football team, we have a basketball team, soccer teams. But then we also have color guard, we have choir, performing arts all under the athletic umbrella. We also have a painting guild that students can receive scholarships for." 

"League of Legends just made sense," he continued. "I don't think anyone thought anything disparaging about adding eSports and eSports athletes to our lineup." 

Melcher, it turns out, is a bit of a gamer himself. Employed with the University for almost 20 years, in his college days he spent his time with games like Starcraft and Command and Conquer. When Starcraft 2 released, it renewed his interest in gaming, and eventually led him to the "massive" League of Legends. He was almost immediately impressed.

"I was shocked at the  scale and size of that game and the community behind it," he said.

With his school's "forward thinking attitude" as part of his motivation, Melcher moved to pitch the idea for an eSports program to RMU's president Michael P. Viollt and director of athletics Megan Smith. 

"He saw the potential in eSports," Melcher said of the president, "And didn't see it as any different than traditional sports where there's teamwork, strategy, and practice involved. Our school recognizes that different opportunities for different students make a lot of sense."

Their next step was to contact Riot, which helped the institution formulate its program. Although the studio already has its own collegiate program, it was nevertheless happy to assist RMU - part of the reason may have been that this is the first time a sports program has actually looked seriously at gaming. While not entirely surprising given RMU's stance, it's still unprecedented in the world of university athletics. 

According to community specialist Steve Jaworski, Riot's involvement has primarily been focused on "giving the school the tools and information they need to make informed choices for students entering this new system."

"With an announcement like this, it's important to be prepared for the scale of response - we worked to help equip the team for the sheer volume of interested players that would want to be a part of the program,"  he continued, adding that Riot also helped the school connect with eSports contacts in order to compile a competitive team. The ultimate goal is to build a program focused both on "competition and sportsmanship."

According to Melcher, RMU's eSports athletes will be held to the same standards as their physical athletes.

"Players, just like from any of our traditional sports, would have to sign a letter of intent," he explained "That letter of intent would spell out that you're a good citizen. Our athletes are judged on a more stringent behavior pattern than regular students, just because they're sort of the face of the university. That will be monitored by the coach and the university strictly."

Those who violate any of the University's rules could face a whole gamut of charges, including game suspension, social probation, scholarship loss, or even removal from the team. 

Currently, RMU is seeking a coah to head the growth of its competitive team - someone within the League of Legends community who has the experience and ability to teach.

"Applicants will definitely go through a rigorous interview process to make sure they're able to interact with student athletes in an appropriate manner, really with the goal of them being gamers second, students first," he said. "But we want them to get as good at gaming, especially in League of Legends, as they can."

After the coach has been selected, it'll be their job to assemble the teams into a three-tiered varsity lineup, complete with daily practices, mixed matches, and their own uniform. According to RMU, the team should be ready for the 2014-2015 school year. Later on, they'll be adding more games to their program. League of Legends just seemed a natural starting point, given its popularity and presnce in the world of eSports. 

It's a bit of a weird thought, isn't it? One day in the very near future, prospective students across the world may vie to attend University on an eSports scholarship. Less than a decade ago, gaming was still considered an activity for those on the fringe of society. Now, though? 

Gamers are well on their way to being fully-recognized professional athletes, complete with all the perks that entails.