Tilt Lord’s Decree and Gudi are watching, waiting for, what feels like, the inevitable coup de grace. Their team is losing. It’s not going well.
But then the crowd around them erupts as multicolored sparks flash on the big screen. There’s a roar, bolts of lighting, some purple fire. A comeback, a grim proposition moments before, now looks possible.
They join the din. “No way!” they yell. Several in the audience exchange high-fives.
Mason Chee and Nihar Gudiseva, along with a handful of their fellow members of the Penn State Esports club, are watching Penn State take on Rutgers in the Spring LAN, the League of Legends tournament their club holds each semester. While many of their peers are still returning from Easter weekend, the members have crowded into the campus’ HUB-Robeson Center to watch the finals.
Professional player Crumbz is in attendance, commentating. Light from the Freeman Auditorium screen bounces off the members’ faces, which move through varying stages of excitement as the game plays out before them. Some have brought signs.
“It’s worldwide,” Chee says as the crowd shouts around him. “It’s getting more and more recognition.”
A growing industry
Outside of the gaming community, Chee and Gudiseva are students at Penn State. Chee is a junior in electrical engineering. Gudiseva, a sophomore, is studying computer science. But online, they’re known as “Tilt Lord’s Decree” and “Gudi,” their “in-game names” in League of Legends, the online multiplayer game with a global following.
Like athletes such as LeBron James (“King James”) or Michael Jordan (“His Airness”), esports athletes have their own myriad nicknames, adoring fans and sponsorship deals in what is a booming industry. Newzoo, a research group that studies the esports and tech industry, reports that global revenue for esports is expected to top $1 billion by 2019.
From 2016 to 2017, the industry grew by $696 million, a growth rate of more than 40 percent.
“A lot of companies are seeing the business potential in League of Legends,” Gudiseva, 19, said.
Tournaments for League of Legends, which more than 100 million people play each month, according to Riot Games, the game’s developer, have filled venues such as Madison Square Garden in New York, the Staples Center in Los Angeles and Sangnam Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, home to the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
In South Korea and other Asian markets, esports athletes are household names, drawing millions in revenue, fans and cultural cache. The West is following in those footsteps, with competitive video gaming now attracting big-name sponsors such as Coca Cola and American Express. In September, the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers acquired two professional esports teams, Dignitas and Apex, becoming the first professional sport franchise in North America to own an esports team. Some of the more prominent esports teams have estimated valuations between $5 million and $15 million, ESPN reported.
Yet compared to the major American sports leagues, esports are less of a known commodity, players say.
“Collegiate esports are stepping into the mainstream” said Bryan Lou, a club officer who oversees the League of Legends team. “But I think most people don’t understand the nature of these types of games. You have casual games where you’re not really competing. But with esports titles, you’re actively competing with other people. That’s what builds up a sport.”
But they are a commodity. In 2015, the League of Legends World Championship in Berlin attracted an audience of 36 million, more than the number of viewers for that year’s NBA Finals.
“There are good storylines, like other sports,” Lou said. “The infrastructure is in place.”
Missing out in the Big Ten
In January, the Big Ten Network announced a partnership with Riot to broadcast a League of Legends college season in a format similar to conference play.
The Big Ten, the oldest Division I collegiate athletic conference in the U.S., does not sponsor esports and the games are not recognized as an official sport by the NCAA. But the move reflected the growing interest across the country in esports — and the potential windfall they bring in revenue.
The league began on Jan. 30 and hosted its televised final on March 27. Maryland took home the inaugural title. Other colleges, including those in the Pac-12, have poured resources into dedicated esports spaces and planning further support for competitions. Robert Morris University Illinois began offering scholarships in 2014 for players on its official video game team.
But Penn State was not among the teams competing in the Big Ten’s first season, which included Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue, Rutgers and Wisconsin.
As a consequence, the Penn State Esports Club and its League of Legends team missed out on $30,000 in scholarship money, split among six players and provided by Riot.
“It felt bad that the school didn’t recognize what we were doing,” said David Wu, a club member.
According to a statement released by the Penn State Esports Club in January, Penn State Athletics did not allow the club’s League of Legends team to participate in the season due to use of logos and the timing coinciding with the university’s football team competing in the Rose Bowl.
“After contacting Penn State officials and Big Ten employees, we were told that Penn State did not sign off because they are very protective of their ‘brand’ and did not have enough time to address us,” Dylan Beal, the club president, wrote in the statement. “Because this took place during the Rose Bowl, Penn State was too busy.”
After contacting Penn State officials and Big Ten employees, we were told that Penn State did not sign off because they are very protective of their ‘brand’ and did not have enough time to address us. Because this took place during the Rose Bowl, Penn State was too busy.”
Dylan Beal, the Penn State Esports Club president, wrote in the statement.
But Beal and the club members remain hopeful to join next year.
“It didn’t make sense: We’re one of the bigger names in the Big Ten, why aren’t we in the Big Ten Tournament?” Chee said. “I know there were issues with the administration. But there’s always next year.”
In March, Jeff Nelson, Penn State Athletics’ assistant director for strategic communications, said Penn State would continue to explore options with the Big Ten and the esports competition.
While colleges struggle with how to handle the rapid rise of esports, game developers are recognizing campuses as ripe places for growth. Besides Riot, major players such as WorldGaming and Blizzard Entertainment have bought amateur leagues founded on campus or have sponsored events hosted by club’s like Penn State’s.
Penn State Esports Club, for instance, is partnered with Tespa, a collegiate arm of Blizzard Entertainment that has awarded more than $1 million in scholarships to players.
“People are starting to realize this is an actual thing,” Chee said. “Not just a bunch of nerds.”