Kempner: College scholarships … for killing monsters?

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With college tuition bills coming due, scholarships for students are kicking in, too. The awards show what kind of kids donors want to be aligned with.

You know: Students who get great grades or volunteer to help needy kids or throw a football like a missile. Or kill lots of stuff in video games.

Yeah, that, too.

Atlanta-based KontrolFreek, which makes popular "performance thumbstick" extenders and sweat-resistant grips for gamers (not kidding), recently awarded $3,000 college scholarships to three students nationally who are eSports competitors.

"It's something that parents should be proud of," said Ashish Mistry, KontrolFreek's CEO.

He plans another round of scholarships next year. Other companies are ponying up money, too.

This fall, the University of California at Irvine plans to offer $5,600 scholarships (covering about half of in-state tuition) for 10 top student gamers. It claims to be the first public university to offer scholarships for eSports team members who will represent the school in competitions with teams from other colleges.

"It is a chance to be the best at something that is going to be bigger than traditional sports," said Mark Deppe, the acting director of UCI's eSports program.

Rather than relying on tax dollars, the program aims to get all its funding from corporate sponsors and charges to students who use a new campus gaming room. Deppe predicts a boost for campus life and recruitment in general.

“All the same perks that come from having the best football team or the best basketball team, we are going to see that with eSports,” he said.

He told me he thinks there will be dozens or hundreds of such college-backed programs in the next few years.

Sports heresy?

All of this might seem like sports heresy.

I mentioned the idea to a college student I know who just completed a stint as a camp counselor. He’s only mildly into gaming but he told me how lots of the camp’s pre-teens chattered about becoming pro gamers. Fewer, he said, mentioned dreams of traditional athletic stardom.

Neither path is very likely, of course. (There are aberrations. Like the 24-year-old from Cartersville who was on a team that won $1.3 million in an eSports tournament last year.)

I suspect parents are more amenable to the classic muscle sports.

Maybe real, grown-up money will change that.

Half of American adults play video games, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. ESports pulls in millions of regular online viewers and fills arenas with people watching other people play video games. It has expanded into national prime-time TV on TBS (which plans another round of its Atlanta-based ELEAGUE competition in October). Big consumer brands like Coke and Arby's are focused on the lucrative trend, even as Arby's CEO Paul Brown admits, "it's a community that I don't understand."

ESports also generates stunningly big pots of money for its stars. The prize pool for the latest international Dota 2 championship this year: over $20 million. (No, that’s not a typo.)

ESports complications

Complications, though, come when serious eSports veer onto university campuses.

Colleges, conferences and TV networks that rule sports like football and basketball have limited options to do the same with battles over digital monsters and mythical creatures. Publishers own the rights to eSports games. More importantly, eSports fans are a feisty bunch. They resist the idea of commercial overlords, even as they embrace the ability of players to make money.

ESports may roll over traditional restrictions on pay-for-play in college athletics. Elite gamers often compete in private tournaments with cash or equipment prizes. They make advertising dollars from people who watch them play or give tips online. While the payout probably is small for many of them, the financial potential is growing. (Alpharetta-based game maker Hi-Rez Studios awarded $500,000 to the latest winning team of its SMITE world championship. A smaller, more recent SMITE tourney has a top prize of nearly $10,000.)

UCI’s Deppe told me “Right now, we are comfortable with students earning money” in outside eSports activities.

But if eSports becomes a big business for colleges, could it help loosen the financial shackles on football and basketball players who have seen limited financial benefits even as they have been used as cash-dispensing machines for big-time university athletic programs?

At the moment, eSports supporters are focused on more modest goals: Getting funding for travel to competitions, hiring part-time coaches, enjoying early registration for classes in order to work around daily team practices.

Excused absences sought

Albert Lee, president of Georgia Tech’s eSports, told me the top goal for the student organization’s very best players is to get automatic excused absences from exams when they travel to competitions.

“They are good students. We don’t want them to have to jeopardize their academic standing,” he said.

A Tech team won a national tournament for the game Counter-Strike. Another made it to the semi-finals in a big League of Legends competition. Lee said he’s heard from international students who told him they first learned about Tech through its eSports success.

With that kind of marketing value, he wants the university to offer scholarships for top players. He’s also talking to potential corporate sponsors.

KontrolFreek, the company that recently gave out scholarships of its own, is among those in the discussions, said Mistry, the CEO. He predicts more companies will do the same.

“ESports,” he said, “isn’t a question any more.”