Like Sir Isaac Newton a few centuries earlier, Karlin Oei owes the transformative moment of his life to a bonk on the head.
For Newton, it was an apple. For Oei, it was the open hand of his annoyed mother.
“I’m watching ‘Inception,’ one of my favorite movies, and she slapped me on the back of the head,’’ the Sugar Land, Texas, native recalled. “She’s like, ‘Why are you watching this silly movie? You should be practicing. You should be playing. You should be training.’”
Oei, like Newton, immediately understood the gravity of the situation. For the first time in his life, his mother was pushing him to excel at playing League of Legends. This was not academics, not the cello, not the piano, not tennis nor any of the other activities he was pressured into growing up in a family of doctors.
This time, Oei’s mother wanted her son to get back to his game.
Such is the validation that comes with winning $80,000 in college scholarship money playing esports, as Oei had done as the varsity team captain at the University of Texas at Dallas. This pathway to a paid education is a phenomenon playing out across the country, with industry experts estimating at least 550 institutions now offering scholarships to gamers.
“The reason colleges need to be included in esports, formally, is because that’s where their students are,’’ said Glenn Platt, a marketing professor who helped Miami University (Ohio) become the first Division I university to start a competitive varsity esports program in 2016. “This is the sport of college-age people, you know? Inevitably, it will be just the most popular sport, period.
“There’s certainly a lot of hyperbole with the numbers. I think they’re highly exaggerated and not terribly reliable. Esports aren’t that big yet, but they certainly are going to be that big.”
Miami launched its scholarship efforts by passing out $4,000 in scholarship funds to its 20 varsity team members. While some colleges initially offered partial scholarships or stipends, many institutions now provide full rides that cover tuition, room and board and even gaming equipment.
It’s part of a wider trend for gamers whose long-hidden skills are at last being appreciated by the mainstream.
And by their parents.
“I went to my room, and I just started bawling, man,’’ Oei said. “It was like, ‘Finally, (my mother) supports me in what I like to do and what I’m passionate about.’ I will say a lot of that was due to the scholarship and not having to pay for school, but her support meant the world to me.”
Variations on this theme began playing out as early as 2014 when Robert Morris University Illinois in Chicago became the first college to offer esports scholarships. RMU hit on something lasting. Indeed, there are now occasional recruiting wars for the top video gaming talent, just as there might be when multiple schools vie for the same strong-armed high school quarterback.
“If you ask some esports coaches, they might call it ‘cutthroat,’’’ said Carolayne Henry, who oversees esports as the senior associate commissioner at the Mountain West Conference. “There are accusations of tampering and all the things that you can think of that happens with conventional athletics, that happens in esports.”
None of the action is NCAA-regulated, although the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), founded in 2016, has helped make an organizational dent in a landscape Platt described as “messy” because of numerous complications surrounding intellectual property, Title IX gender equity, eligibility and prize money.
But the evolution could come quickly as the popularity of esports continues to explode — along with its economic impact. Consider that the League of Legends World Championship finals, which take place Sunday in Seoul, South Korea, could be a record-setting spectacle because it features superstar Faker and his T1 team against Weibo Gaming.
Faker’s semifinal showdown against JD Gaming reached a global peak viewership of more than 33 million viewers, according to Riot Games. The biggest esports stars now command seven-figure salaries.
Is it any wonder schools want a piece of that demographic?
“I had an hour-long call with the CMO (chief marketing officer) of a major automaker recently about their sponsorship in esports, because they recognize that if you want to get in front of this generation, this is the only way,’’ Platt said. “It’s the same thing for universities, right? If you want your university to get in front of your target market, they’re using ad blockers and they’re not opening those glossy things you’re sending out in the mail. This is where you’re getting in front of them.”
College esports operate in something of an upside-down universe where small schools tend to be Goliaths while major schools struggle for traction. Think of it as NCAA March Madness where the mid-major dominates the power-conference schools.
Such are the benefits that can come with being early adopters. Maryville University, a powerhouse program from its inception in 2015, followed Robert Morris as the second school to establish a varsity esports program and, according to program founder Daniel “Clerkie” Clerk, was the first to offer full-ride esports scholarships. The private school in suburban St. Louis is to collegiate esports what Alabama is to college football. The Saints boast four League of Legends national titles and are the defending national champions in Overwatch.
At Maryville, gamers are the nerds and the jocks.
“There’s a weird spectrum of players in esports,’’ Clerke said. “I’m gonna try to tread carefully on this subject, but a lot of them will fit the gamer stereotype. But we also have multiple players who can bench 315 (pounds). Some of our best players were once very good at football or another sport in high school and they got injured. They couldn’t play anymore, so they channeled their competitive drive into video games.”
Clerke, a former professional gamer and manager who captured more than $5 million in career prize winnings, welcomes the increasing number of major universities joining the esports ecosystem. In the meantime, Maryville continues to ride the wave of a dynasty.
“I’ve been told by my president that the school’s marketing from esports is a lot cheaper than what they would get if they did paid advertising,’’ Clerke said. “It goes way farther. We competed in China a few years ago, and our mail room was full of mail from Chinese fans. That was a pretty cool experience.”
Mark Deppe, who helped create a powerhouse esports program at UC Irvine, said his school recognized the power of counterprogramming when he launched the program there in 2016. At the time, UCI was the first public school with a varsity esports team and the first school west of the Rockies to do so. Back then, the handful of teams were mostly small private liberal arts schools in the Midwest.
Deppe attended UCLA and spent five years of his early career there. But he sensed a different world upon taking a job roughly 50 miles south.
“I just felt like UCI has this kind of younger vibe to it,’’ he said. “I’ve heard multiple times people say, ‘The cement’s not dry here yet.’ We don’t have a football team to lean on. I think we’re still kind of trying to kind of build our identity.”
Around that time, Deppe stumbled across an article that described UCI as the No. 1 school for gamers, in part because its student-run League of Legends club team had won three unofficial national championships. So Deppe tapped into that ready-made pipeline and presented a business plan to campus administrators that sold the world of esports through the five pillars of competition, research, community, entertainment and careers.
“Our leadership thought it would set us apart from the other UC schools, in Berkeley and in L.A., who were already thriving in other ways that we did not feel, maybe, we can catch up just yet,’’ Deppe said.
By 2018, UCI’s League of Legends team won the college championship, and UCI was awarded “Most Outstanding Collegiate Program” by the esports industry. The squad plays its matches at a state-of-the-art esports arena. Each starter there receives a $6,000 scholarship, and additional thousands can be won at tournaments during a season that stretches from fall into spring.
Schools like this now are hardly an outlier. Parents hardly even need it explained anymore.
“I remember in 2015, I was talking to students’ parents, and they thought that it was a scam because it was just so out there,’’ Clerke said.
Not everyone will buy esports as a sport at all. Certainly, it’s harder to see the physicality in this realm than, say, watching someone dunk or return an interception 90 yards for a touchdown or spike a volleyball to record a kill.
That said, these schools treat their players like physical specimens regardless.
“They’re without a doubt athletes, and they behave that way,’’ Platt said. “We focus on yoga and sleep and what they eat and how they practice. We treat them the exact same way we would treat a football player in every respect.”
As for whether or not it takes physical skill, just try it, Platt said.
“Professional esports players have cortisol levels equivalent to fighter pilots. They have reaction times that are on par with some of the greatest athletes in the world,’’ he said. “Everyone sort of assumes that if you can play a video game well, you could play collegiate esports or even pro esports. That’s kind of like saying, ‘I play basketball, so I should be able to get into the NBA.’ That isn’t how it works. These athletes are insane.”
The action is physically demanding to where injury prevention is a major concern at the college level. There are no ACL tears or broken bones, but players suffer from joint issues and hand ailments. To keep his Maryville players healthy, Clerke encourages cross-training.
“Typically, it’s hard to get a gamer to want to go lift weights. So we favor more gamified workouts like rock climbing,’’ he said. “We have built a very active culture. The upperclassmen are going to the gym every day, and they’re bringing the underclassmen with them.”
UCI over the years has had athletes work with an exercise physiologist and also has laid out plans for nutrition, sleep and ergonomics. Deppe said his players meet with a team psychologist twice a week to talk about synergy, build an identity, work on constructive and productive feedback and deal with conflict.
While skeptics might continue to debate the physical demands, some of the more esoteric benefits of mainstream sports clearly translate into the digital battlefield.
Oei went on to found a company called EKUSO, with the goal of creating the esports experience he wished he had while in school. One of his former players, William Izarra, competed for Sora Schools, an online private middle and high school that provides students the chance to compete at the national level in esports. Sora leans into the notion that game play comes with developmental benefits, citing research from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study that shows children who regularly play video games are faster and more accurate on cognitive tasks than those who never play
For Izarra, blending school and gaming was life-altering. The Georgia resident went from lifelong bystander to confident team captain who led Sora’s triumph at the 2023 Amateur Esports Association championships.
“I never really was into sports in high school too much when I was in public school. I was in the band, I suppose. But I didn’t really like going to the football game,’’ he said. “But now as someone who represents my school, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to really focus on the way I communicate with people, and the way that I address people and how to get people inspired.”
Even as scholarships help fuel the explosion of collegiate esports, gender equity lags. Until that’s remedied, Title IX guidelines will make it difficult for the NCAA to give esports its blessing.
There are plenty of female gamers around. A 2023 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media showed that women make up a little less than half of gamers across global markets — 46 percent in America, 47 percent in Europe, 48 percent in Australia and 37 percent in Asia.
That same study, however, cited surveys indicating that “women and other marginalized communities report feeling excluded or that their identities are represented inauthentically in video games.” Women are hypersexualized in video games, with 25 percent shown in revealing clothing and 12 percent shown in some state of nudity. The numbers are 2 percent and 3 percent, respectively, for men.
“Women game almost about the same as men, but it doesn’t always translate in college,’’ Henry said. “Part of that might be — and I’m speculating here — they don’t know. They’re not aware of the opportunity. What I found with the Mountain West is the more organized our programs are, the more likely they are to attract a diverse group of players.”
Henry lauded Boise State, which has an “open-play opportunity” that allows anybody from the school to participate. She said BSU has successfully recruited women, including some female team captains.
“As a conference,” she said, “we talk to our administrators about the need to brainstorm ways to get more women and more minorities involved and to get away from the stereotype that it’s only a certain segment of individuals who participate in esports.”
Ashley Hodge, a PlayVS SuperCoach, built Colquitt County High School into a massive esports program with more than 60 students. But her own gamer experience covered some rocky roads. To hide her gender, Hodge wore a voice changer on her mic to sound more masculine and used a username that hid her female identity.
“I’ve been around since the ’90s in terms of gaming; it’s always been very hostile towards women,’’ she said with a Southern drawl. “(It) doesn’t matter what age you are. It’s even worse if you’re a woman and you have an accent. It’s terrible!”
“Now I don’t hide,’’ Hodge continued. “I let them know that I’m a woman that’s beatin’ them.”
It’s well-documented that female gamers endure harassment from other players, which helps explain why so many girls and women eventually bow out. But Hodge said a perk of playing for a high school or college team is that there’s a system in place for rooting out bad behavior. Coaches or other officials, she said, “are there to safeguard players from those interactions. If (harassment) does happen, there’s an immediate flip versus when you’re playing online at with random people from the internet. So I think if girls could take that first step and experience the high school program, they would feel that as a safer environment, I think we’d get more of them going and we’d see an increase.”
Three years ago, she joined the board of advisors for Riot Scholastic Association of America. Hodge now helps determine policy changes that can improve the esports ecosystem. It’s an uphill climb, even at the high school.
“I actually have a young girl right now as the first one I’ve had in six years,’’ she said. “She came because she wants to play Super Smash, because she played Super Smash with her brothers at home, and that was kind of like her way in.
“In terms of what we can do to increase women in esports, I would say we need to offer more games geared towards them. That’s generally hard because gaming as an industry, for the most part, has been male-dominated. We don’t even know what female-based games would look like. But you also need to make sure that your environment is safe and welcoming for them.”
Deppe, the mastermind behind the UCI program, gave a TED Talk in 2017 envisioning the tables flipping. The future of competition, he explained, would be mostly digital.
“I still deeply believe that, even though I would have had way better slides and different, slightly different argument,’’ Deppe said. “If I picture the future of humanity, I don’t see us banging our heads on a football field concussing each other.
“I think it’s intellectual games through a computer interface. Esports (provide) some of the most fair competitions in the world because games are incredibly valid. I think we’re gonna use our brains more and more to compete. What I hope to see are universities continuing to invest and support this.”
In the meantime, Platt said the power of esports at universities in places like Miami can be seen at campus tours around the country.
The appeal can feel like a smack upside the head.
“Our college tours go right past our esports arena,’’ he said. “That’s where they take the kids, because that’s what they want to see, right? To me, this seems so obvious. Like, why would we not be doing this?”
(Top photo of Saint Louis University and the University of St. Thomas at the Collegiate League of Legends 2023 Championship semifinals: Jason Keany / Riot Games)