photos by Geoff Daley

What do Michael Jordan and your basement-dweller nephew have in common? They can both get college scholarships for doing what they love.

The dimly lit room in the basement of the Grand View University’s Nielsen Resident Hall in Des Moines, Iowa used to be a hangout spot for students. Now, it’s a sports arena — sort of. It’s not loud like a football stadium. There’s no screaming fans. No cheerleaders. Just the soft clicking of mouses and keyboards and the occasional murmur of conversation and strategizing.

But that doesn’t mean the Grand View Esports team, the Grand View Red, isn’t in the thick of it. They’re working out their strategy for League of Legends, the game that serves as the team’s field. Things are about to get virtually bloody.

e-sports scholarship

Forming the Team

Esports isn’t really anything new. People have been competing in video games for almost as long as they’ve been around. The first tournament, an “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics,” was held in 1972 at Stanford University. The winner got a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. Atari turned esports into a massive event in 1980 with a Space Invaders tournament that pulled in over 10,000 participants. There was even a movie dedicated to esports as early as 1989: The Wizard, starring Fred Savage and Christian Slater.

But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that professional competitions became popular. Tournaments popped up around the globe. Serious gamers started being seen as athletes. An esports exhibition will be held in the lead-up to the 2018 Olympic Games. It’s estimated that by 2019 almost half a billion people will be watching esports. More people watched the 2014 League of Legends Championship than any other sporting event besides the Super Bowl that year.

e-sports scholarshipThose kind of numbers made administrators at Grand View perk up. So did the fact that other schools across the country were launching esports teams. “This is a private institution that is always looking for opportunities to see what interests are out there so we can attract students of high quality,” says Jason Bauer, the vice president of student affairs. “We thought this would be an opportunity for us to be pioneers in esports.”

In fall 2017, Grand View launched its own esports team, becoming one of less than 50 schools recognized by the National Association of Collegiate Esports. To make the team happen, though, the school needed a coach. It got two: Cole McFarland and Travis Nelsen. Application developers at Homesteaders Life Company in Des Moines, the two interviewed together and said they were a package deal. The school hired them both as part-time coaches.

“We thought this would be an opportunity for us to be pioneers in esports.”

“We got two coaches for the price of one,” Bauer says. “They’re doing it just because that’s what they’re passionate about.”

“Cole and I have been gamers since as long as we can remember,” Nelsen says. “I always wanted something like this in my college experience, and it was never there. To be a part of it now is awesome.”

Getting a team wasn’t as easy, though. Esports teams — or at least those that play League of Legends, the standard game for many esports leagues — require five players working in unison to destroy the opponent’s Nexus, or home base, before they destroy yours. There’s strategy. There’s speed. There are plays. It’s not that far removed from basketball — if basketball had giant weapons, monsters, magic and required the total destruction of your enemies.

Building the perfect team is a challenge, especially since McFarland and Nelson had to do it from scratch. They began recruitment for the team in May of 2016, after most high school seniors had already declared where they would attend college in the fall. Even so, they found 19-year-old Jon Quach on Reddit and made him team captain. Online, Quach goes by the username Fuki, and he’s ranked among the top 750 League of Legends players in North America.

“There’s not a lot of security with professional gaming,” Quach says. “If you’re going to school and getting a degree, there’s security there for the future rather than trying to make money on your own. And then there’s retiring from esports and not having much to do afterwards.”

Quach doesn’t plan to retire any time soon. The Grand View Red not only has tournaments to win, but also a team to sell. While esports continues to grow, many still don’t take it seriously.  It’s seen as nerdy. It’s laughed at by “real athletes.” Still, a November 2017 Counter-Strike tournament filled the Oracle Arena, the same place where the Golden State Warriors play.

e-sports scholarship

The team is constantly doing outreach, showing students and critics in Central Iowa what they do. “We’re kind of a dark horse at the moment,” says team member Trevor Horner. “No one knows what we do, but we’ve been trying hard to make a brand. We want to get our name out there, become more accepted on campus.”

And maybe, if they do their job well, the Red and other esports teams will help competitive video gaming line up next to baseball, soccer and basketball as one of the world’s premier sports.

“Esports is bigger than it seems right now,” Quach says. “People should be on the lookout for it. It’s a little bit smaller in North America right now, but outside of the United States it’s growing a lot more rapidly. People need to take esports seriously.”