How a Tiny Nebraska College Went to War in Valoran

Midland University's 'League of Legends'-centric varsity esports team wants (and needs) a win.

An illustration of Nebraska's Midland University's League of Legends characters
Riot Games

Joey Evans wants you to know that he is, first and foremost, an athlete. Evans is a member of Midland University’s esports program, the college’s varsity gaming team operating under the auspices of its athletic department. Though there are thousands of clubs around the country devoted to playing Dota 2, Call of Duty, and Overwatch at a competitive level, only seven colleges offer scholarships and regularly compete against other institutions. As of this year, Midland is part of this self-selected group. This puts Evans, a 6-foot-5 former Midland basketball player, and the school itself, an exclusively undergraduate institution of just over 1,400 in Nebraska, at the forefront of the college esports revolution.

Evans earned a gaming scholarship to Midland by excelling at League of Legends, a wildly popular multiplayer fantasy video game developed by Riot Games that grossed $1.6 billion in revenue (per SuperData, an industry research firm) in 2015. League of Legends is the lone specialty of Midland’s six-month-old varsity esports team.

The North American Collegiate Championship 2015 was serious business.

Robert Morris University

“We used to get home from road games after midnight, but when my teammates would go to bed, I would stay up another few hours because I hadn’t played League of Legends all day,” Evans laughs. I had to get my games in. The next morning, guys would joke about how much soda I had to drink before practice to stay awake.”

Evans’s decision to quit the basketball team last spring in order to pursue gaming would have raised eyebrows on a different campus, but not so much at Midland, which has a robust esports rec league on campus. Evans was part of that community, but found that he took gaming more seriously than most of his opponents. His approach, naturally, was that of an athlete. His level of devotion didn’t go unnoticed — he got a visit from members of the school’s administration, who had read about esports programs taking off at other small midwestern schools like Robert Morris and Pikeville. Evans quickly formulated the perfect pitch.

“It is just like college basketball,” he explained. “The first few schools in the beginning became powerhouses. We need start giving out money to get players to come play video games in small-town Nebraska.”

The Columbia Cougars are one collegiate team with a decent level of support.

Columbia College

Only a few weeks after speaking to Evans, Midland publically announced the formation of its esports team with a carefully timed press release — a few weeks after the NCAA tournament and before MLB kicked into high gear. Evans was one of its seven founding players, five of whom were already enrolled at Midland. In late October, the team kicked off its inaugural season competing weekly in the University League of Legends division of the Collegiate Star League. The first two contests didn’t go well. Midland suffered back-to-back losses at the hands of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Louisiana Tech. This was, according to Midland Athletic Director Dave Gillespie, unfortunate but predictable.

“Embry-Riddle is an established team, and we felt good about our showing,” says Gillespie. “This is the right timing to start this team. It was still early enough to garner momentum on the recruiting trail before everyone jumps on the bandwagon. We would then be shut out.”

Gillespie is a true esports believer and he’s far from alone in wanting to invest. Michael Sherman, Riot Games’s collegiate lead, says his company thinks this amateur competition will create an overall more competitive gaming environment. “We think of college as its own ecosystem with ties that might take some people to the professional level,” he says. According to company figures, more than 100 million people play League of Legends each month, and tens of millions of fans tuned in to watch the the South Korean team SKT Telecom T1 win the recent world championship finals, which featured a live concert from the musician Zedd. More people watched the 2015 League of Legends* finals than the NBA Finals.

Sherman isn’t suggesting that March Madness or the College Football Playoff is going to have competition in the next few years, but he is proud of how collegiate play has evolved since Collegiate Starleague kicked off in 2009, a full five years before Kurt Melcher launched Robert Morris’s League of Legends team in 2014. Melcher didn’t have a club to pull from but felt — being a huge gamer himself — that he could find enough talent to feed the program, which now has 94 scholarship athletes (between $12,000 and $19,000 worth of tuition is covered) spread across five video game titles.

Compared to Midland, Robert Morris University has a more robust esports division.

Robert Morris University

“Our goal is to be the Duke of esports,” says Melcher. “We recruit from all over the place. We have kids from Sweden, Argentina, and Spain. Just like any sport, we find the best players that we can get.

No team is on Robert Morris’s level, but Columbia College in Missouri might provide Midland with a model of how to get there. The school’s League of Legends squad, which launched several months before Midland’s and is still undefeated through six games, follows a unique recruiting approach: pursuing only Diamond- and Master-level players, which constitute the game’s highest ranks. “We didn’t have the team, the equipment, or the facility, so I recruited on pure promises,” says Duong Pham, Columbia’s head coach (a part-time gig, he’s also a programmer). “I can see what people want and what they need, so my pitch was: ‘Come here and we’ll give you this!’ I was a better salesman than people thought I could be.”

A decade ago, Midland wouldn’t have even had enough students to start an esports program. The school, then a strictly Lutheran college, had seen its enrollment dip into the 500s. The small campus — the entirety of the school exists within a city block, 20 minutes west of Omaha, Nebraska — was quiet. But the school rebounded, and by 2011, when Ben Nabity enrolled as a business administration major, Midland’s student body was steadily growing. Nabity became the head of the gaming club and grew that as well, becoming well known enough on campus that it made perfect sense for Gillespie to seek him out for a head coaching job.

“Midland is trying to get as many kids as possible to come to school here and make itself more available, so an esports scholarship is a brand new way to give kids the college experience,” explains Coach Nabity. “There are a lot of kids that play video games who live in Nebraska, but they can’t afford to go to college. Look at this from a recruiting standpoint — we can get a lot more students to come to Midland based on their video game chops, so why not give it a chance?”

And why choose League of Legends as the team’s game? Not only was Nabity familiar with the title — “I was a much better player in college when I didn’t have kids” — but Riot offers $8,000-per-player scholarships to elite competitors. Nabity says this gives students a natural incentive and goal.

Boosting enrollment and media exposure is all well and good, but there is a stronger motivation behind the tiny school’s esports foray: Midland wants to be a tech powerhouse. “We are doing it a bit backwards,” admits Gillespie. “We haven’t created a computer science program or an IT major yet, but part of the allure of starting this team is taking a look and seeing if we can bring enough tech-oriented people to Midland.”

Esports can be a significant investment for universities like Midland.

Midland University

Facilities will likely come before the tech students. Nabity’s team currently plays in a computer lab in the Olson Student Center that is accessible only to gamers during the team’s practice hours four nights a week — that is, unless a Midland student needs to print a paper out. “It is one of the only labs open after hours with a printer, so I’ll let someone in if they are desperate,” Nabity laughs. The computers in this small facility have at least eight gigs of RAM and a graphics card for 60 frames per second “without hiccups.” Nabity also forced Midland to update its internet connection, installing fiber optic lines — “internet lagging during a match is just the same as a power outage” — as well as a private ISP just for the team.

That lab won’t impress the recruits Midland needs to leapfrog into the esports upper echelons, which is why Midland is in the midst of building an arena for the team, renovating an unused lab in the student center that will be used for both practices and competition. Outfitted with a projector that will stream the League of Legends games to a stadium capable of seating up to 200 people, Nabity gushes about the proposed concession stands and the sponsors who’ll outfit the team: “We’re working to get sponsors that those who play League of Legends see all the time, like Razer and Logitech. We’re also hoping to get a chair sponsor, something similar to DX Racer.”

Still, Nabity is a first-time coach in a sport without any sort of tradition. He struggles to recruit, which some might describe as the chief job of a college coach in any sport. And his players recognize this. Recruiting will ultimately determine whether Midland succeeds or becomes; in the words of Cole Anderson, one of two recruits Nabity landed for the 2016-17 season, just a “run-of-the-mill esports team.”

This is an example of a college sports team. An esports team, if you will.

Columbia University

Nabity can offer scholarships to 40 students, which would rank Midland among the largest esports clubs or varsity teams nationwide (for comparison, the largest is arguably Robert Morris, which has nearly 100 scholarship athletes). It is a significant amount of money — the scholarships are roughly half of Midlands $28,000 tuition. According to Nabity, Midland’s athletic administration expects at least 20 players under scholarship within the next two years, and Gillespie even believes Nabity can recruit 40 in that same time frame. There is little to no room for growing pains, and Nabity as well as his players are under enormous pressure to jumpstart this team.

“Dave Gillespie understands it takes a lot to make this happen,” says Nabity, who updates his Google Drive recruiting spreadsheet daily and touches base with at least five prospective recruits each week. “I’ve been pushed to use social media and email more, and contacting high schools and guidance counselors to find players, which I wouldn’t be comfortable enough doing on my own.

University of Nebraska Lincoln has been Nabity’s stiffest competition for recruits; the Big Ten school has a more robust scholarship program (though not for esports) and has a wider breadth of majors — during an October scrimmage against UNL, Nabity coached against a player he had wooed who chose Nebraska over Midland. “That was hard,” says Nabity. “I really wanted him on our team.”

But success is impossible without a willingness to fail. And the members of Midland’s esports program seem to feel comfortable living out on a limb.

“A lot of the faculty has been pretty negative,” says Nabity. “They say the video games are sinking their students’ grades. Even some members of the athletic department have questioned this. I had the football coach ask whether I seriously considered myself a head coach.”

Nabity does, and he takes what he’s doing seriously because he has seen this devotion pay off for his competitors.

“When Dave Gillespie came to view our team and what we’ve built here, we told him to make sure the team was scalable,” says Melcher of Robert Morris. “You can have the mindset of starting off with 20 players, but you need room to grow. [Midland’s] arena is a good start.”

For right now, though, it is practices four nights a week, games on the weekends, and free time spent either fine-tuning gameplay or bonding over appetizers at Applebee’s. My last conversation with Nabity was hours before the team’s first official game against Louisiana Tech in late October; the squad had been practicing all week to boost its gold per minute and to force team fights, and they were excited to kick off the season. Two recruits from nearby Hastings were planning to visit. Nabity was pumped and so were his players.

“We want to get our name out there on the national stage, but it’s going to take more work than we are putting in now,” said Cole Anderson. “We have to get very serious about teamwork, stricter about practicing, and increasing our game knowledge a lot faster. To get that that world-class level, it takes playing League 12 or more hours a day. Everyone understands the pressure we are under. If we don’t perform well and aren’t competitive, no one will care about or want to play for Midland.”

Though Midland would ultimately lose two sets to Louisiana Tech, and drop the match (the team’s overall record is now 2-4), Evans wasn’t too discouraged: “It’s been a struggle to find time to connect as a team, but we are finally getting organized. We’re even at a stage right now where we welcome anyone from Midland to come play with us. We don’t care if they don’t know the game and mess up. The only way we’ll continue to get better is by practicing with more and more people.”

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