In the summer leading up to the 2014 school year, Robert Morris University Illinois (RMU), a small private college in Chicago, sent shockwaves through the education and sports worlds when it offered the first ever gaming scholarship.
It was for League of Legends, which had recently hosted its third championship esports tournament in front of a sold-out Staples Center in L.A. Sensing an opportunity, RMU hoped LoL could do for it what basketball did for Duke — and so far, it has. In that 2014 recruitment class alone was Adrian Ma and Zig, two pro LoL stars who often credit their time at RMU as a big part of their success.
But of course, nothing is that clear-cut. “To me, the intentions of RMU became highly questionable knowing there were people who received an esports scholarship but were ranked Silver in League. This essentially translates to no noteworthy skill whatsoever,” says redditor Octuplehomicide, who originally raised his concerns in one of the first Reddit posts about the scholarship. “Right now there are 78,000 League players ranked Gold and below. And while I’m sure there are some exceptions, I can say definitively there isn’t currently — nor has there ever been — a collegiate League of Legends player that was ranked Gold while playing competitively.”
In other words, giving someone ranked Silver or Gold in League of Legends a scholarship would be like giving me, the worst player on my 0–25 freshman basketball team, half off tuition to play basketball at Duke.
Small, private schools gaming the scholarship system is nothing new, but back in 2014, “the entire marketing blitz of ‘we support esports and are willing to provide scholarships to potentially competitive League of Legends players’ was nothing more than an attempt to get otherwise unlikely of-age students through the door of their university,” Octuplehomicide tells me. Also consider that this reportedly “substantial” scholarship offered by RMU was only 50 percent tuition and 50 percent room and board for qualified players, and 25 percent off tuition for lower-skilled players.
Looking back at RMU’s 2014 yearly tuition, then, a 50 percent League of Legends scholarship would have cost $26,700, and the 25 percent scholarship would have run $38,200. Compare that to paying full tuition at Illinois State University ($27,881) — not to mention that ISU offers 160-plus degree options to RMU’s 23.
So where did that leave the 36 students who received those very first gaming scholarships?
Nathan was among them, and this is how he tells it.
* * * * *
I learned about the scholarship while scrolling through Facebook. In hindsight, it all happened so fast. With zero prior knowledge of the school and having only just started playing League of Legends, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
But despite not having a highlight reel or a high ranking, I filled out the application and waited to hear back. I wish I hadn’t.
Eventually they called back and invited me to campus for a meeting. When I got there, 50 other players and I loaded up into school buses bound for a gaming center in Chicago, where we’d be split into teams to compete for spots on the team, for which we were told there were only 30 open spots. The rest, per rumors anyway, would be filled by big-name players from across the world.
It was very stressful, but I played out of my mind and my team won. I was awarded the scholarship and set off to begin life in Chicago, with a scholarship to play a game I loved. Immediately, everything was amazing. As if we were on a professional team, we had dorms designated just for us. League is a huge mental game, so by sleeping, eating and living in the same room you’re able build synergy and relationships you need in the game.
I was in a room with three players from the top team: Tailsz, Zig and Adrian. On one hand, it was awesome, like having LeBron James be your freshman roommate. But because I wasn’t ranked high enough to be on their team, I didn’t need to build synergy with them. So my interaction with them in the game was minimal, which was unfortunate. But Adrian and Zig were very helpful and welcoming, even if it felt condescending at times.
The school also built a gaming arena with computers just for us and fully kitted us in hoodies, sweats and jerseys to wear around campus. I might not have ranked high in the game, but I felt like a celebrity who was on top of the world. I had so much pride in feeling that I’d gotten somewhere that others couldn’t.
Obviously, playing esports is very different from athletics in many ways, but the practice times, scrimmaging, coaches, communication and playmaking is all there like a normal sport. Everyday I got out of class around 3 p.m. and practiced for the next six to seven hours. On Friday through Sunday, I had to be open for online tournaments. It wasn’t too overwhelming, but getting a job was out of the question.
After we trained, we’d review games we’d just played, finding ways to improve or make smarter plays going forward. Then there were break periods where we’d go back to the dorm to eat and decompress so we could get our head back in the game. Beyond maintaining a 2.0 GPA, there weren’t really any educational parameters to keep the scholarship. There weren’t tutors or required study hours either, but if one of the players got behind, we all rallied to help him step up his grades.
And when the opposite happened, like when Adrian was picked up by Team Impulse, everyone was excited. I remember in our dorm listening to him go through patch notes and break it down to the numbers, and in what scenarios it would be good or bad, and what he would be able to capitalize on. We all felt the same could happen for us if we shined. But Adrian was, and is, an exceptional player.
Eventually I moved up to a higher ranking, which felt great. Not just because it meant the coaches recognized my talent, but also because it meant my scholarship would bump up to 50 percent off both tuition and room-and-board. Little did I know, it was too late.
Come third quarter, I was told by my “financial advisor” that I essentially had to give them $5,000 to stay in the school and had 30 days to do so. I can’t say it was really ever explained that I had to pay off my tuition every quarter, and as much as I loved the esports program, the transparency with the rest of the school was definitely not there for me. [A spokesperson for RMU tells MEL that all tuition and payment information is given to students during orientation.]
Maybe it’s just that the scholarship is heavily geared toward players that have money to pay for college or can easily acquire loans. Because the schedule I had — doing homework, class and then practicing six hours a day — made it impossible to hold a job. It just wasn’t an option.
So, I ended up being evicted from my dorm and losing all my other scholarships for the year as well. I moved back home, and as of today, I still owe RMU about $20,000 and another $9,000 in federal loans. To put it as bluntly but honestly as possible, I got wrecked by the school.
The program was great, but not being told I had to pay anything until essentially the last moment, and then losing all the scholarships I earned and effectively putting the full tuition plus room-and-board onto my credit score, sucked. [RMU’s spokesperson to MEL: “With all the pomp and circumstance and adrenaline, maybe (Nathan) didn’t remember (the payment plan). Does it happen often? No, but sure, that could happen.”]
It still follows me to this day as a grim reminder that I either should’ve waited till I was able to get the 75 percent scholarship the following year, or that I should’ve just saved money up then gone to school. After all, I was able to manage my workload with practice and still left with a 3.75 GPA.
But not waiting is my only regret. Sure it was ultimately a $29,000 “experience,” but it was one that helped me grow and become a better leader. And I can say that I was one of the first 36 people in the country to receive a gaming scholarship.
Now I’m a supervisor at the Great Wolf Lodge, and tell my younger coworkers that they can go as far as they want in esports if they put the effort in and have a talent for the game but don’t think going to college on a scholarship is the only way to go pro.