Colleges roll out scholarships to varsity video game players

CBS/AP Video games are going varsity.

In some ways, they're like typical college athletes. They're on varsity teams. They train for hours between classes. Some get hefty scholarships. But instead of playing sports, they're playing video games.

On college campuses, varsity gaming teams with all the trappings of sports teams are becoming increasingly common as schools tap into the rising popularity of competitive gaming. After initially keeping its distance, even the NCAA is now considering whether it should play a role.

Fifty U.S. colleges have established varsity gaming teams over the past three years, often offering at least partial scholarships and backed by coaches and game analysts, much like any other college team. The popularity of competitive gaming comes as the video game industry's revenue has surpassed music sales and secured a foothold with teens and 20-something adults. Young men now spend an average of 3.4 hours a week on their joysticks compared with just 2 hours a decade ago.

"We're talking to at least three or four new schools every single day. We did not expect this type of reaction," said Michael Brooks, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate eSports, a group that represents more than 40 schools with varsity gaming teams. "It caught us a little off guard."

Competitive gaming, often called esports, has become a booming entertainment industry over the past decade, with flashy professional events that fill sports arenas and draw millions of online viewers.

The biggest tournaments offer prize pools upward of $20 million, attracting elite gamers who wage battle in popular video games such as "League of Legends" and "Overwatch."

While colleges may be celebrating the esport, some economists are concerned about how video gaming may tie into a decline in working hours for young men. The trend has snowballed, with young men between 21 and 30 years old trimming their working hours by 12 percent annually from 2000 to 2015, compared with an 8 percent decline for older men.

The social aspect of gaming may make it more appealing to young men who are struggling to get a job or find a lucrative job. It's also a very economical form of entertainment, which may appeal to young adults who don't have a lot of extra cash.

Until recently, most colleges were slow to meet demand for a collegiate version, experts say, but interest has come in a flurry over the past year as more schools see a chance to benefit from the industry's growth.

Smaller private schools in particular have been quick to create varsity programs as a way to boost enrollment numbers, although so far it has brought mixed results. Among several starting new teams this year is the College of St. Joseph, a school of about 260 students in Vermont.

"Strategically, we knew that it would give us more cache with students," said Jeff Brown, the school's senior vice president and athletic director. "We're all looking for a way to bring more kids in."

Many colleges hope to replicate the success they've seen at Robert Morris University in Illinois, a small school that launched the country's first varsity team in 2014 and has since become a national powerhouse.

But it's also catching on at some bigger schools, including the University of Utah, which says its new varsity teams are the first at any school in the five major athletics conferences.

Although most collegiate tournaments are now organized by third-party gaming leagues or video-game companies, the rapid expansion has caught the attention of the NCAA. The league's board of governors announced in August that it will discuss its "potential role" in esports at an October meeting, noting the "prevalence of organized gaming competitions" on college campuses.

Supporters of collegiate gaming say varsity teams can bring national exposure to colleges at a relatively low cost, with the potential to land sponsorships that bring costs even lower.

The University of California, Irvine, opened a new $250,000 "eSports arena" last year with financial backing from sponsors including a computer company and Riot Games, a video-game maker that organizes collegiate tournaments.

Other sponsors of the 3,500-square-foot arena provided 80 high-end computers, specialized gaming chairs and other equipment, university officials said.

"Compared to traditional sports programs, it's more affordable," said Brooks, of the collegiate esports association. "At the end of day all we're talking about is a souped-up computer lab."

Students who represent their schools say it teaches them lessons in strategy, teamwork and time management, and it offers camaraderie with other gamers on campus.