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The game changer: Esports scholarships offer thrills and skills for NIU students

Image by 11333328 from Pixabay

Colleges around the country are leveling up their Esports programs. That includes Northern Illinois University.

Video games like Overwatch could pay for your child’s college education.

Colleges across the country are awarding thousands of dollars in Esports scholarships and recruiting students to play in their programs.

According to the National Education Association, scholarships by U.S. colleges climbed to over $27 million dollars in the past few years.

Harrisburg University in Pennsylvania, offers full-ride scholarships, including housing, for their varsity Esports players.

Conner Vagle is the director of Esports for Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. Vagle has watched Esports at NIU grow from a casual club to a competitive gaming program with real opportunities for players.

“We've been able to see the growth of that to where now we're in a 6,000 square foot facility with 50 Plus PCs with eight console stations, three high end VR headsets," Vagle said, "and we work together with the College of Education to have an Esports industries professions minor in the sports management program."

Brandon “Allegro” Diehl is a Damage player for NIU’s varsity Overwatch team. Diehl says his parents were hesitant for him to join the team, at first.

“They're first reaction was, 'are you sure you have time for that?'" Diehl said. "Then they found out we were getting scholarships the year after I joined, and they were like, 'Oh, well, now you probably should do that.'"

Vagle says the growth of college Esports programs has helped shift some parents’ negative attitudes about video games.

“Our favorite anecdotes about it is, we used to have some of the students come up to us at Week of Welcome or orientation days, and the parents would kind of drag them away and be like, 'Oh, no, no, no. We don't want you to sit in there playing video games and everything,'" Vagle said. ”Whereas now, we see that it's kind of the parents pulling the students a little bit towards our booth and being like, 'Hey, see, this is an actual thing you can do.'”

Parents have good reason to explore these scholarships and the other opportunities Esports could bring their children.

The increased exposure from playing on the university’s team means players could also receive endorsement deals, profit from their likeness or creative content, and even get scouted by professional Esports teams.

Statista reports that the top four professional players for League of Legends made over $900,000 each this year. In 2021 the League of Legends World Championship in Iceland saw 22 teams from 11 regions competing for $2.2 million in prizes and had over four million online viewers.

Along with League of Legends, NIU also competes in Rocket League, Valorant, and Overwatch.

“Our varsity program," Vagle said, "is about 30 students across those four game titles."

Just like traditional sports, players are required to attend practice and maintain a minimum GPA in their classes to stay on the squad and qualify for team-specific scholarships.

“The discipline aspect is very similar to 'normal' sports," said Vagle, "and I don't think people really give Esports gamers the credit that they deserve as far as putting in the work goes. It's not like we're sitting in mom's basement all day and playing video games, there's more to it than that."

Spots on NIU’s team are filled by a mix of tryouts and recruitment. However, Vagle has noticed a shift by many universities.

“At many campuses," Vagle said, "as the move to scholarships has come, there's more of an emphasis on recruiting, and I think that may be the direction that the industry is heading over the next few years.”

For Diehl, the benefits of competitive gaming go beyond financial gains.

“It’s not just the aspect of being better at the profession itself," Diehl said, "but the socialization aspect gets you really far in a lot of places, and especially in sports and Esports, you have to know the right people and you have to be friendly or else no one's gonna wanna work with you.”

Brandon Clark is a reporter at WNIJ.