eSports on the rise: U of M League of Legends club wants official sport status

Typically, athletes workout and sweat. A select few gain scholarships to compete in college.

Video gamers, on the other hand, are typically thought of as sitting 
in front of a screen for hours and hours.

Yet college students in the University of League of Legends, an eSports gamers club at the University of Minnesota, received $5,000 scholarships to participate in a conference-wide League of Legends competition earlier this year. Members of this club want the university to recognize eSports such as League of Legends, a popular team-based computer game, as an official sport, a move other colleges and universities across the nation are also weighing.

“A lot of people have kind of
 a negative stereotype of eSports, saying it’s not really a sport and it’s a very kind of nerdy thing to do,” said Adam Thao, the University of League of Legends club president and founder. “It’s actually really competitive.”

In League of Legends, a computer game created by Riot Games, two teams of five play head-to-head in online battle arenas and attempt to destroy the opponent’s nexus, a central structure of a team’s base. The game can be defined as being “like capture the flag,” according to Thao.

With more than 100 million active players worldwide, League of Legends hosts tournaments across the globe, including a yearly championship series in which professionals compete for millions of dollars, according to the game’s website.

“It’s just a different mindset for a sport,” said junior Xander Westgaard, a League of Legends gamer. “You 
just have to get out of the traditional mindset of, you have to be running 
in a field. It’s not as much physical work, but it’s just as much practice and a whole lot more mental work and strategy and effort.”

University of League of Legends president Adam Thao (center), club member Lani Dubberstein (right) and gamer Xander Westgaard share a laugh.

Thao created the University of Minnesota club as a sophomore in college. He wanted to play League of Legends with his friends and not by himself, he said.

“I would normal play in my dorm by myself and maybe Skype my friends and then we would play,” Thao said. “… [We] started the organization and from there it just kept growing and growing, and now we are over 300 members.”

Weekly practices are held at the University of Minnesota, which has dedicated one room and five computers for practice. The club practices 10 hours per week.

Westgaard joined the club when he was a freshman. He now competes on the Minnesota League of Legends Collegiate Series, a different League of Legends group.

“Everyone gets to meet new people,” Westgaard said of the U of M club. “It’s a great way to network because we have over 300 people that’ll play in our college.”

Senior Lani Dubberstein joined the University of League of Legends when she was a sophomore. Now, she’s a gamer and graphic designer for the club.

“I made some friends with other women who play,” Dubberstein said. “That’s a little bit harder to find because most of the people who play are men. It’s nice to be able to meet other women through the club.”

Earlier this year, Minnesota was one of 12 schools to compete in the Big Ten Network League of Legends season, which was sponsored by Riot Games. Club members received $5,000 scholarships to compete in the first-ever Big Ten competition in March. The championship was televised live on Big Ten Network.

“Everyone’s taking notice, and it’s quickly growing,” Thao said.

In an effort to gain official sport status, Thao and club members are working with the university’s athletic department to grow the eSports community through hosting events with the University of Minnesota and the Big Ten Network, he said.

If eSports become recognized as an official sport, there would be an increase of club members and the sport would grow from just being
a hobby, said Thao. Club members have said they want the athletics department to provide a 24/7 team lounge and improved Internet speeds, according to news reports. They say they’ll be better equipped to compete against teams that have similar funding.

Thao said he “strongly believes” the university will recognize eSports as a sport because the university already has taken steps to support the League of Legends club, including providing practice space and sponsorships.

“A lot of people play League but don’t attend meetings because it seems nerdy,” said Thao, “but if we are recognized as a sport, more players will come out and try to improve as a player.”