BRISTOL, Tenn. – King University, who has long been a pioneer and innovative leader in the field of athletics, announced its newest sport on Wednesday, esports, joining over 70 institutions nationwide who offer scholarships for student-athletes to compete at the intercollegiate level. King is the first school in the state of Tennessee to offer esports as a varsity program.
In recent years, esports has developed into a multi-million dollar industry, with the winning purse at last year's Dota 2 International Championships topping $24 million. Each of the five players on the winning team earned a prize of $2.16 million. For comparison, the 2017 Master's champion, Sergio Garcia, took home $1.98 million.
"It's an amazing thing and I think it accomplishes a lot," King student Juan Somoza said. "It means a lot to me because I am a player of League of Legends. I would want to be part of League of Legends, as a lot of my friends want to be. We want to participate in an organized esports team, especially in League of Legends. I'm glad that it came."
In the past three years, the League of Legends World Championships have drawn comparable numbers of online viewers to television viewership of The Master's, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals and World Series. Esports events have sold out Key Arena in Seattle, Nationwide Arena in Columbus, and Madison Square Garden. In addition, esports is under consideration from the International Olympic Committee for inclusion in the 2024 Olympic Games.
"We've always tried to be on the cutting edge in college athletics, with sports like women's wrestling, cycling, and acrobatics & tumbling," said Director of Athletics David Hicks. "Our goal has always been to reach underserved populations and meet unmet demand, and esports is an obvious choice for our next varsity sport."
Growth at the collegiate level has been remarkable in the past four years. In 2014, Robert Morris University (Ill.) became the first institution to offer scholarships in esports, a number which has grown to over 70 just four years later. Earlier this spring, the Collegiate Overwatch Championships attracted 12,500 online viewers.
"I'm excited that David has chosen me to launch the esports program at King and to have the first program in Tennessee," said Head Coach Micah Ridley. "Esports is thriving in the professional industry, and I believe growing the collegiate level seems to be a natural next step. We are providing student-athletes the opportunity to grow in their respective esport, while furthering their education."
King will join the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), which formed in 2016 and serves as the largest governing body of intercollegiate esports in the country. NACE currently has over 60 member institutions across the United States, accounting for over 94 percent of intercollegiate programs in the country. In 2018, the Peach Belt Conference will sponsor esports as a conference championship, with the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) and the East Coast Conference (ECC) sponsoring championships as well.
"Esports fits very nicely within King's mission," said Hicks. "Esport student-athletes tend to be very good students, bringing solid academics and preparedness to college. Once they are here, they will learn the same values and lessons student-athletes learn in more traditional sports, such as teamwork, overcoming adversity, perseverance and sportsmanship."
King will initially compete in two games, Overwatch and League of Legends. League of Legends is the most popular competitive game in the United States, with over 95 percent of intercollegiate programs sponsoring the game, while Overwatch is the second most popular at 74 percent. Both games are multi-player, online games where student-athletes on a team work together to defeat the opposing team within the established rules and objectives of the game.
King will begin recruiting immediately and will field its first teams during the 2018-19 academic year. A practice and competition arena will be constructed this summer in Bristol Hall, and will be equipped with specialized gaming rigs, and accessories for the varsity program.