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High School Sports

Anchorage gamer receives ‘esports’ scholarship to play video game in college

Jonathan Steigleman, 18, a senior at Anchorage Christian School has received an scholarship to play the video game “League of Legends” at Southwest Baptist University. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

Gone are the days when hardcore gamers were relegated to their parents' basements, sipping energy drinks and munching on Hot Pockets while smashing away on their keyboards until the wee hours of the morning.

Nowadays, the best high school gamers can receive college scholarships to play at a highly competitive level and get an education at the same time.

This fall, Anchorage Christian senior Jonathan Steigleman will become what is believed to be the first Alaska gamer to attend college on a scholarship for competitive gaming — known as "esports" — when he joins the "League of Legends" team at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri.

"Every night when I'm going to sleep I get excited (thinking about it)," Steigleman said. "I'm going to college to play a video game and do what I love.

"It's going to be amazing."

Paid to play

When Steigleman first told his dad about a potential esports scholarship, his dad didn't believe it.

"He's like 'Yeah right, you're not going to get a scholarship for playing a video game. That doesn't happen,' " Steigleman said. "When I actually got the scholarship offer, I think that's when it hit him that it was actually happening."

Not only was it happening, but Steigleman had his pick of "League of Legends" scholarships from three schools, including Robert Morris, the first university to start a esports program in 2014.

"League of Legends," also known simply as "League" or "LoL," is a game that pits two teams of five players against each other in an online battle arena, where the goal is to destroy the other team's base. Each player controls his or her own fantasy-type character, called a champion, with its own set of attacks, abilities and roles.

Steigleman will play the role of "jungler," which is a position that assists the other four players on the team, sort of like a point guard in basketball or a libero in volleyball.

Steigleman said he was first introduced to the game by a friend in middle school, but it wasn't until later, when he picked it up again on his own, that he became hooked. Before long, he was playing every day and improving by watching professional players online and researching intricate parts of the game.

Eventually, he wasn't just watching professional players, he was actually playing with them — like an amateur basketball player getting into a pick-up game with Michael Jordan or LeBron James.

"The first time I played with (a pro), it was pretty surreal," Steigleman said. "It was like, I don't feel like I'm that good, how can I be playing with pros right now?

"It probably motivated me more than anything to just play more. These are people I've been watching play the game and win money, so it was pretty exciting."

Steigleman said one of his most exciting moments was when he hit what's called the diamond league, putting him in the top 2 percent of players in a game that features tens of millions of players every month.

Still, his dad wasn't impressed.

"I found my dad and told him (and) he was like, 'OK, I don't know what that means, but congratulations,' " Steigleman said.

Southwestern Baptist coach Chris Allison said he liked Steigleman's ability to think outside the box when he watched him play online during the recruiting process, which was part of the reason he offered him a spot on the team.

"The way he does things is not the way I see everyone do it," Allison said. "He's largely self-taught, so he just has a lot of raw ability in the game."

Growing scene on campuses

Two years ago, Allison was trying to figure out ways to reach new groups of students on the Southwest Baptist campus. He heard about a few universities with gaming programs and wondered if it was something that could work at SBU.

So he started SBU's eventual esports program in an old closet on the corner of campus.

"We pulled together some funds and renovated an old closet and installed eight Xbox Ones and created our first Xbox arena on campus," Allison said.

The new program drew students — about 8 percent of SBU's undergraduate population — who were not participating in other campus clubs or intramural sports.

"That's where the data started to point that we might want to invest in this path," Allison said.

The game scene, with classic games like the first-person shooter franchises "Halo" and "Call of Duty," has had professional players and teams for more than a decade. But it wasn't until the last few years that a handful of universities decided to explore the growing industry of competitive gaming.

Last fall, Southwest Baptist became the 15th school in the nation to offer scholarships for esports. Allison said that number is growing.

"I think right now that number is up over 30 schools that have officially launched programs with scholarships available, (and) last I heard projection was over 60 for next fall," he said.

Allison said college enrollment is down nationwide and schools are looking for ways to boost enrollment. One way to do that is to delve into a world that attracts millions of people.

Last year's League of Legends World Championship drew 43 million unique viewers and was broadcast online in 18 languages, according to numbers from the game's developer, Riot Games.

Steigleman plays the video game “League of Legends” at home. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

But is it a sport?

Allison said one of the most common questions he's asked is whether esports should be considered a sport or not.

His answer? It's not a sport, it's esports.

"Some people like to say 'electronic sports,' but we don't really say 'electronic mail' anymore," Allison said. "It's just email. It has its own identity.

"Eventually esports will have that for all people as well."

Traditional sports audiences and esports audiences may be different, but some organizations are investing in both. ESPN's website has a section devoted to esports and the NBA announced plans to launch an NBA 2K esports league for the popular basketball video game next year.

At the collegiate level, the NAIA oversees the National Association of Collegiate eSports (NACE), which counts Southwest Baptist as a member.

The NACE provides a spring playoff tournament for college teams, with the top winners advancing to Riot Games' University League of Legends (uLoL) tournaments, Allison said.

Putting down the headset

Gamers aren't successful without some focus on nongaming activities in their lives, Allison said. Part of Southwest Baptist's esports training routine includes physical activity three days a week.

"We want to make sure that students are taken care of not just for the esport itself, but physically and mentally and they're prepared on all those fronts," Allison said.

Steigleman said his biggest hobby outside of gaming is singing. He is a tenor in the ACS choir and plans to join the college choir as well.

He also enjoys working with computers — he built his own computer as a sophomore — and plans to study computer science in college.

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