Colleges That Offer Video Game Scholarships

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In Durham College’s esports arena, they weren’t just playing for bragging rights: money was on the line.

Colleges That Offer Video Game Scholarships

Durham College hosted the Ontario Collegiate Rocket League Finals, the first ever collegiate esports athletes in Ontario played for scholarships.

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“A lot of people, especially older people, don’t understand this is a sport,” said Zachary Bouffard, who coaches Durham College

About 50 students from a dozen Ontario colleges and universities attended the event, which had $7,000 in scholarships.

Getting grants, money, and prizes to play video games is nothing new to those immersed in the world of competitive gaming, but outsiders are often surprised to learn how popular and potentially lucrative esports can be.

The 3,000-square-foot student center space on the Oshawa campus can seat up to 120 spectators and features 46 high-end Lenovo Legion gaming consoles, 12 of which are behind a glass wall, reserved for varsity sports players to train.

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Enthusiasm was high at the event, with even live commentators analyzing the action as games streamed on Twitch.

It is often described as “car football”. Players use rocket vehicles to shoot the ball into the opponent’s goal.

Durham Lords teammates Dallas Smith and Luke Logan have played more than 1,000 hours and say there is still plenty of room for improvement.

“It takes a lot of practice to get really good at it. Even after all those hours, there are things I need to improve on,” says Logan, a sophomore at Durham College.

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“There are so many talented students playing esports and we really want to validate them as student athletes,” said Sarah Wagg, esports arena manager at Durham College.

He says the Ontario Collegiate Rocket League Finals did just that, bringing in major sponsors like the TD Canada Trust and giving players the same scholarship opportunities other athletes have.

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Then, last spring, six of Jeremy’s teammates were offered nearly $400,000 in college scholarships to play college esports.

A year ago, Murray never dreamed that his son would be able to get money for college by playing Overwatch, a kind of digital Dungeons & Dragons with laser combat. He didn’t know colleges had competitive game teams, and he certainly hadn’t heard of them in high school.

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“Occasionally I let Jeremy play for a few hours so he doesn’t lose his skills,” said Murray. “I guess I’m just a typical sports dad.”

Parents and educators across the country have been trying to make the same adjustment, and fast. In the 2018-19 school year, nearly 200 colleges in the United States offered $16 million in esports scholarships, more than tripling from 2015, according to the National Association of College Esports. To boost enrollment and keep up with the latest trend in the tech industry, colleges are recruiting from online gaming platforms, as teams continue to pop up in high schools around the world.

Jeremy Murray, a senior at Francis Howell Central High School and captain of the school’s Overwatch team, practices several hours a day in hopes of earning an esports scholarship from college. Brock Stoneham/NBC News

The demand for high school games has spread so quickly that state activities and athletic associations, high school sports regulators, are scrambling to keep up. They ask whether video games are a safe and useful activity for students and whether they should treat it like a sport.

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But esports companies are not waiting. Some of them already help schools set up computer labs, organize tournaments and connect students with college recruiters. These companies are building grassroots support for the growing college and professional scene, serving not only gamers, but also future executives, marketers, data analysts, and game designers.

“Esports is here to stay and should be embraced,” said Chris Heintz, editor-in-chief of the High School Esports League, the oldest and largest of the esports companies.

Heintz’s company estimates that most of the $16 million offered in scholarships went to players participating in the online tournaments, which are estimated to have attracted 65,000 players at 1,700 high schools.

“Esports has many of the same benefits for students as traditional sports,” Heintz said. “And eventually, as awareness grows, as we move up the chain, through teachers, through administrators, the ‘aha’ moment will happen for more people.”

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The success of the Francis Howell High School esports team was as sudden as the rise of high school esports itself. The team was formed a little over a year ago and now six seniors will play for varsity teams this fall with tuition in their pocket.

The “aha” moment came for guidance counselor Kris Miller in the spring of 2018 when she toured with a group of students at Columbia College in Missouri. One of the stops was the Game Hut, a small black building with ambient blue interior lighting, wall-mounted flat screens and backlit keyboards. It used to be the university’s esports facility.

Miller knew there were avid gamers among his students. What he didn’t know until now was that several colleges in Missouri were looking for recruits.

“I thought we would be remiss if we didn’t start an esports team in high school,” said Miller. “If colleges offer scholarships, our kids should be fighting for it.”

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Under school district rules, Miller needed 10 kids to start a club. In just one week he gave birth to 20-14 boys and six girls.

Students at Francis Howell Central High School in St. Louis practice playing Overwatch while the guidance counselor and club sponsor watch. Brock Stoneham/NBC News

Miller didn’t wait for her kids to be discovered. He invited college coaches to the school to meet the team. Central Methodist University accepted the invitation and then invited two of the seniors to visit the campus to compete in an Overwatch tournament. In the end, the university offered the students $100,000 in scholarships.

“I knew if they knew who we were they would come after me if they needed players,” said Miller.

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Scholarships helped Francis Howell bring credibility to esports. And help Miller run the program like a sports team. Players must show up for practice and keep their numbers. They also do a few laps around the school before playing keyboards.

Parents get on board. Le’Anne Schlotzhauer considered the time her children spent online watching live streams of professional video games wasted. But when she found out that her son George was joining an esports team for a chance to win college tuition, her question was, “Are you good enough?”

“There’s real communication, teamwork,” Schlotzhauer said. “They analyze the game, look at it afterwards and look for what they can do better. There are many things that people don’t realize.

Even as the list of state colleges and universities recruiting high school students grows, state athletic associations have been slow to embrace esports.

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“The priority is what kids get out of an activity, learning life skills to become good citizens, not going to college,” said Stacy Schroeder, associate executive director of the Missouri Sports and Activities Association.

Then there is the apparent absence of physical exertion. Athletic commissions question whether esports falls within their purview.

“I have no doubt that what kids get from esports resembles more traditional teams,” said Andy Frushour, director of brand management for the Michigan Athletics Association. “They wear uniforms. They represent their school. They exercise every day. But some people get caught up in the question, “Is this athletics?”

“They preached, ‘Go out and run around,'” Frushour said. “And then they see these games that are nothing like what they grew up with. With something like this, an association like ours needs time to move forward.”

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