The way Connor Doyle describes his recruitment makes him sound like any other future college athlete.
Coaches from Columbia College in mid-Missouri watched his matches, how he played, and got a gauge of his character. He had scholarship offers from several schools.
The coaching staff called constantly, both to stay connected and show interest in Doyle, who was living in Maine. Columbia College president Scott Dalrymple pitched the school’s facilities and resources and connected with Doyle’s parents.
But Doyle wasn’t a striker being recruited to play for the college’s NAIA soccer team or a point guard being recruited to play on the hardwood.
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Most of Doyle’s recruiting was done online, with coaches watching his games on a day-to-day basis. That’s because the 21-year-old is an attack damage carry (ADC) player in the multiplayer online battle arena game League of Legends.
This fall, playing on a scholarship similar to any of the players on the college’s basketball teams, Doyle will be the shot caller — or the play caller — for one of the college’s two competitive League of Legends teams, in their first year of existence.
“All of these people who have creative control with the program at Columbia, their goals really aligned with my own, which was winning a national championship,” Doyle said. “They didn’t want to have a building year, they wanted to come in strong and win the first year. That, combined with how dedicated the staff was, really sold me.”
With his rank of Master, Doyle is in the top .04 percent of the 67 million players who play the game worldwide every month. Artemis, which he goes by in-game, was the first of 12 players to sign an e-sports scholarship with Columbia College over the last five months. The 12 will split into two teams, each made up of a top-laner, mid-laner, bottom-laner, jungler, support and one substitute, with two coaches, Duong Pham and Matt Meininger.
Dalrymple and Brian Curtis, the coordinator of facilities and intramurals, which will head the League of Legends team, are still learning to feel the game out. Yet they are the two who sold Doyle on the program.
“To me it’s a logical extension to add video gaming at the collegiate level,” said Dalrymple, who views the college’s League of Legends players as student-athletes. “This generation is really into gaming, and if you’re going to relate to them, you better know something about that world.”
According to Pham, the school invested the same amount of money into the e-sports program as they would another sport. Each of the 12 players will play on a scholarship in a brand-new gaming arena.
The Game Hut, where they will play, will serve as a place for other students to play video games as well. The space was renovated from a small soccer locker room into a high-tech room outfitted in Columbia College blue and white and packed with the latest technology — DXracer chairs, ASTRO A40 headsets, and mechanical keyboards. The project, according to the school, cost $60,000.
The market for e-sports, and League of Legends specifically, is already growing significantly. Last year’s world championships brought in 36 million unique viewers, and e-sports have more than 200 million viewers worldwide. One report says that e-sports revenue — $120 million in 2012 — is expected to jump to $465 million by 2017. Already, there are nearly as many e-sports “enthusiasts” (89 million) as there are hockey fans (94 million).
“This is the future,” said Joey Gorombey, a Park Hill High School alum who transferred from Missouri to join the team on a $6,000 scholarship. “These collegiate enterprises may not be so big right now, and they’ll never be as big as the pro scene … but you have to realize this is only going to grow.”
The team started as an idea from Dalrymple last October. Dalrymple sent Pham and Meininger on a search for coaches, but instead of hiring one of the coaches they found, Dalrymple wanted Pham and Meininger. The two, who work in the college’s tech department, accepted.
Since then, Pham and Meininger have been scrambling, doing everything from recruiting their first team to public relations work. In fact, it was the first round of press after announcing the team that got players across the United States interested. Columbia was just the fifth college to offer scholarships to League of Legends players.
“Nothing at the beginning was really real, nothing was concrete to show the students, so we didn’t have an identity over other schools or offers,” Pham said. “We wanted them to feel like they could trust us, like we were onto something good, and they’d be a part of something brand new.”
Early on, through scrimmages over the past month or so, it’s seemed Columbia is onto something good.
The team will compete in the Collegiate Starleague, which also plays host to leagues for other massively popular games, including DOTA 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive. They’ll also vie for one of the 32 spots in the University League of Legends Campus Series, hosted by Riot Games, the creators of League of Legends.
Right now, the Cougars scrimmage four or five times a week and have already split games with Ohio State, which finished second in Columbia College’s region in the Campus Series last year. They’ve topped Michigan State, a handful of amateur teams and Challenger Series teams, which consist of the best amateur players in North America.
The rift, or the playing field on League of Legends, is the only place you’ll see Columbia College, a private, nonprofit school of 2,100 students, competing with some of the biggest names in college athletics.
“It seems unreal,” Pham said. “Most people don’t even know where we are. ‘Columbia College, are you guys in New York? You in Chicago?’ No, we’re in Columbia, Missouri.
“This whole League of Legends has already helped put us on the map, and I don’t think it’s ever happened before. We’ve never got so much attention from any kind of media market at all like we have e-sports.”
As Doyle decided to move on from Colby College in Maine with scholarship offers to play League of Legends, he had two more people to convince: his parents. He showed them documentaries, the rapidly growing revenue of e-sports and articles about the industry.
Now, they’ve warmed up to the idea. And as e-sports grow, becoming not only a club or a niche but a fully-funded sport, backed by institutions, people in the athletic community might grow to it as well. Doyle, meanwhile, is hoping to be a professional in the North American League of Legends Championship Series by 2020.
“If you didn’t grow up with video games and you aren’t a fan of competitive League of Legends, it’s hard to comprehend the fact that people actually do this professionally as their job.” Doyle said. “It’s sort of as surreal for them as it is for me that I’m getting paid to play this game.”