The campus superstar used to be a quarterback.
Now, instead of a strong arm for throwing a football, the new superstar might need to have fast fingers to tap a computer keyboard.
League of Legends, a competitive online game, has become a phenomenon on college campuses across the country — including Minnesota. It’s gotten so big, in fact, that it’s being televised. And before you roll your eyes at that, consider this: It has more viewers than the National Hockey League.
League, as it’s known by the people who play it, has been around since 2009 but has taken off over the past few years. The game’s publisher, Riot Games, claims that more than 100 million people play League every month.
The game has become so big that 12 of the Big Ten schools have entered teams in a competition that is being sponsored by the Big Ten Network. The University of Minnesota has a team in the mix.
It all leads up to a live final championship in which players from the top two schools will face off for the chance to move on to the League of Legends College Championships. The Regional Finals will be shown March 20 on BTN2Go, and the Finals will air March 27 on the Big Ten Network.
This is not just a U.S. craze. There are major leagues and competitions on most continents, including a world championship that pits each nation’s best players against one another. Last year’s world finals were streamed online and amassed 43 million unique viewers over five games. In contrast, the 2016 Olympics averaged 28.6 million viewers over the course of its run.
For those not familiar with the game, envision an online version of capture-the-flag, suggested Walker Manning, the vice president of St. Olaf College’s League club. Each team has a “nexus,” a structure in the back corner of their base. The winning team is the one that gets to the other team’s nexus first.
There are five players on a team, with the action taking place in a world similar to “World of Warcraft” and other medieval-fantasy games.
There are teams competing on almost every college campus in Minnesota. The state’s college league, the Minnesota League Championship Series (MNLCS), has 12 teams currently involved, up from eight last year.
Donovan Fay, whose online alias is “Fenfen” and who heads production for MNLCS, said the league was able to get roughly 100 viewers per stream last year, the first year of operation for MNLCS. Their plan is to continue to increase not only viewership, but also the awareness of the league.
“We want to take a lot more effort into this next season in order to build it up much further,” Fay said, “to make it so it stands out on its own and potentially grows into this entire large independent college organization.”
Fay also said he intends to use MNLCS to help people learn new skills and develop techniques.
“We are also right now using the organization to help foster people that are interested in working in the eSports industry and train them in those necessary skills,” Fay said.
But is it really a sport?
Another major focus is legitimizing eSports in popular culture.
“The biggest issue right now for eSports is trying to get the common public to see it as something which is serious, as well as getting investors to truly build revenue from eSports to make it so that the players and people in production can make a livable wage,” Fay said.
As a result, there is a push by the MNLCS to attain recognition for eSports from collegiate athletic departments.
Adam Thao, founder of the MNLCS and president of the university’s club, the UMN Twin Cities League of Legends, hopes the deal with the Big Ten Network opens the door for this recognition.
“If we do really well and get at least a top two, top three [finish in the Big Ten competition], I would make a bigger step to the Athletic Department,” Thao said. “But right now I feel like the U doesn’t really care about EA [Electronic Sports] gaming, EA sports, they’re so focused on football.”
Jake Ricker, associate director for athletic communications at the U, said the university has no plans to add eSports to the docket.
“Name a sport, we’ve probably had someone ask at some point if we’d add it,” Ricker said. “So when I say we have no plans to add additional programs, that applies to all sports, not just eSports.”
There’s also a philosophical issue: Is physical activity necessary to qualify as a sport? Or is it the competition that matters?
Fay argues that it’s the latter. He said that downplaying the competitiveness because the players don’t risk serious injury the way, say, football players do, is “a very silly way to look at it,” Fay said.
“ESports is getting the viewership, eSports is getting the popularity,” he said. “Rather than disregard it, it should be embraced and accepted.”
Kelsy Ketchum is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.