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A League (of Legends) of their own: Esports comes to the Big Ten

The college team is like any other serious enough to eye a championship, so each week this winter at the University of Maryland, College Park, the players study their champions.

Some wield battle axes. Others take a more spectral form. All have lived and died innumerable lives in "League of Legends," the massively popular multiplayer online game set in an imaginative world where users, as so-called summoners, call forth and control one of the many champions available for battle.

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This Monday in College Park was historic. Not necessarily the result of the match — the Maryland team, a national semifinalist a year ago, had defeated Rutgers, 2-0. But the hour-plus of season-opening game play, of scheming and button-mashing, was broadcast on BTN2Go, the digital extension of the Big Ten Network. Conference play had come to esports.

Michael Sherman, who leads Riot Games' collegiate "League of Legends" divisions, called it a "first-of-its-kind partnership" between the video game developer and the BTN. The season-long competition is only a pilot program, instructive in determining a "good long-term strategy for us with esports," said Erin Harvego, the BTN vice president of marketing.

But, Sherman added, "I think there's a lot of eyes on how this season goes. I think there's a lot of question around what our next move is. I think every time you see a school launch a 'League of Legends' program, the interest continues to grow, and … you get a lot of people who know they need to take a closer look and that there's something there."

It is fitting that college esports are having a moment. In 1972, 37 years before "League of Legends" was released, the first known video game competition, for the PDP-1 game "Spacewar!", was held at Stanford University. (The grand prize was a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. The flyer for the event promised "Free Beer!" and noted that it would be photographed by Annie Leibovitz.)

The competition has come a long way since. Last year's "League of Legends" World Championship, for instance, was available in 18 different languages and on 23 different broadcasts. Nearly $7 million in prize money was distributed. The finals were seen by 43 million people, according to Riot Games, with as many as 14.7 million watching concurrently. In June, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers' Game 7 classic drew the best NBA Finals viewership numbers in 18 years: a relatively modest 31 million.

The first "League of Legends" World Championship was held in 2011, and the trickledown to colleges and universities was almost immediate. "Communities were self-organizing on campuses, and we were just trying to catch up," Sherman recalled. A 2012 Pew Internet Research study found that 70 percent of college students were playing video games at least "once in a while," but other than the occasional branded-apparel giveaway or tournament prize, Riot Games' involvement was minimal.

In 2014, the company held its first North American Collegiate Championship for "League of Legends," offering up $100,000 in scholarship money to the winners. Over 500 teams from across the United States and Canada competed.

Interest continued to grow, and last April, three Big Ten teams gave Riot Games something to consider. In the University "League of Legends" Campus Series playoffs, the successor to the NACC, Maryland advanced to the semifinals before falling to Robert Morris. And before a live audience at Boston's Penny Arcade Expo that same weekend, teams from Ohio State and Michigan State competed in an exhibition match.

"That was my first experience with it," Harvego said of the game, called the "BTN Invitational." "It was standing-room only. There were not enough seats for people to watch it. People were sitting in a corridor behind it watching it. Just watching the fans there and how engaged they were with the programming and how intent they were on it just really impressed me. I could see this is clearly a passionate fan base and something that we should explore."

In Maryland, the makings of something great were also in place. The school's "League of Legends" Facebook page has over 1,200 members, and Sriram Talluri, a member of the team's support staff, said each event draws 50 to 60 people. But some of the most important were teammates before they ever got to campus: In 2015, a "League of Legends" squad from Wootton High in Rockville won the High School Starleague Grand Finals, a top esports competition. Four went to Maryland as roster players, and a fifth as a coach-analyst.

The team's semifinal matchup, however, was a case study in haves and have-nots. In 2014, Robert Morris became the first college to add esports to its athletic program, offering partial scholarships to "League of Legends" players. While some other schools have followed suit — the University of California, Irvine in September debuted the first public college esports arena, a $250,000, 3,500-square-foot base for the school's accomplished team — Talluri said Maryland's Student Government Association has been reluctant to allocate funds to the club.

"It's very active right now," said Talluri, a graduate student from York, Pa., enrolled in the Robert H. Smith School of Business, "but I think we still have a lot of work to do."

That goes for the industry, too. Sherman said he hopes "League of Legends" can last "for generations," with schools one day embracing esports as they would any varsity sport and TV networks broadcasting their best matchups. (The Big Ten Network, for one, will televise its conference championship on March 27.)

At schools like Maryland, Talluri sees a paradigm shift under way. Esports revenues for 2016 were expected to climb to $493 million, making gaming an increasingly viable career path. A decade from now, he said, esports could be like any other college sport.

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"Collegiate football is usually a gateway into the NFL. Collegiate basketball is usually a gateway into the NBA," Talluri said. "And so I think Riot's already taken steps to this, but the idea that you play collegiately, and then it's a gateway to a professional team. The game is still pretty young in that regard, but hopefully, I think that would be the proper transition."

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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