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How Video Games Are Becoming University-Approved Sports

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Andrew Higley, U. of Cincinnati

When 800 video gamers arrived at the University of Cincinnati’s basketball arena on Saturday morning, 8,000 feet of extension cords and 11,000 feet of Ethernet cables awaited them. Check-in was at 9 a.m., and they had a lot to carry: laptops, desktops, TV monitors, GameCube controllers. They set up beneath the championship banners and retired jerseys hanging on the walls.

During the two-day tournament, held by the university’s League of Legends club, teams from across the country competed in Super Smash Bros. and League of Legends, among other games. Some 14,000 people watched online, making this one of the largest collegiate e-sports events.

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The tournament, which cost just under $30,000 to stage, was funded mostly by sponsors and entry fees. The retail value of the prizes and merchandise — lanyards, keychains, special glasses that make lengthy screen time easier on the eyes — topped $160,000.

But a small portion of the funds came from the club’s budget, which is provided by the university. And that signals a shift in college administrators’ thinking: They’re starting to see video-game clubs as valuable.

“At first the administration was kind of skeptical,” said Tony Quallen, a campus IT manager and faculty adviser of the League of Legends club. “But as opposed to fighting it and trying to keep it off campus, they’re actually starting to see the benefits.”

Mr. Quallen has been a gamer since he was a kid. When he arrived at Cincinnati as a student, in 1998, he and his friends set up a server on the IT-help desk to run the game Counter Strike. “The administration did not like that,” he said. “We had to shut it down immediately because their thing was, ‘We’re an educational institute. We don’t need to be playing games.’”

Now the League of Legends club has become an official club sport, just like rugby or rowing.

“What’s happening with college e-sports right now is that we’re seeing a formalization and institutionalization of what’s always been present,” said T.L. Taylor, a professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ms. Taylor studies online leisure and gaming culture. Video games are growing more visible on campuses, she said, but they aren’t becoming more popular; students have been playing video games in college for decades. The difference now is that they’re becoming an organized, administration-approved part of campus culture.

Chris Postell, founder of Cincinnati’s League of Legends club, started playing video games in college the usual way: informally, with a small group of friends in the cafeteria. As the gaming community grew on the campus, he and his friends approached the university about becoming a club sport. “It just makes sense for the university to support gaming,” he said. “We just had to convince them.”

They argued, for example, that the U.S. government allows professional video gamers to use an “athlete visa” to travel internationally. And professional video-game tournaments are drawing audiences that rival those of major sporting events. At the 2013 League of Legends World finals, in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the arena was sold out.

“We wanted to establish legitimacy,” Mr. Postell said. The campus events “are actual competitions. These competitions have rules, they have regulations, there’s prizing — just like any athletics division or any athletics conference.”

Even in traditional athletics, there are constant skirmishes over what counts as a “real sport,” Ms. Taylor noted. “Once people come to understand what’s involved in competing around computer gaming, those myths about the sportiness of e-sports start to drop away.”

But as colleges start recognizing gaming as a sport, she wondered, will e-sports develop the problems we’ve seen in big-time college-athletics programs? And what about the stereotypes surrounding women in competitive gaming? Will Title IX come into play?

But even though campus e-sports are becoming formalized, she said, they are still primarily driven by students. At the Cincinnati tournament, for example, the main event was a League of Legends competition, with one team from each college and hundreds of viewers. But many more participants played informally.

The winners of the League of Legends event split a $2,000 cash prize, while those in smaller events competed for merchandise.

“We were not able to hand out $10,000,” Mr. Postell said. “Maybe next year.”

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