LORAIN, Ohio — No one is going to be telling Jordan Zakrajsek to stop playing video games and go outside again anytime soon.
Recently, the Marion L. Steele High School senior received a full athletic scholarship from Lourdes University to play on its “League of Legends” varsity esports team.
That’s right; he’s going to college as a student-athlete to play a video game.
Zakrajsek has been playing video games for most of his life and has been playing “League of Legends” for around five years. At first his parents were worried about the amount of time he spent playing the game.
“For years and years, we would yell at him to get off the computer and go outside and play,” Zakrajsek’s father, Rick Zakrajsek, said. “Now when he comes out of his room, we yell at him, ‘What are you doing? Get back in there and practice.‘”
While the idea of schools giving an athletic scholarship for playing a video game may seem completely foreign to most, it’s something universities have been offering since 2014, when Robert Morris University, located in Chicago, began scholarships for esports.
It’s something the Zakrajsek family has been watching for the last few years.
“When he started playing, we didn’t see this coming; it wasn’t available then,” Rick Zakrajsek said. “As things started coming to fruition with Robert Morris and the University of Pikeville beginning to offer those opportunities, we started thinking about the possibility.
“Even though we’re pretty amazed that it came to fruition, we kind of saw it progressing.”
Robert Morris was the first school to consider offering Jordan a scholarship, but Rick Zakrajsek and his wife, Shelly, weren’t thrilled with the idea of sending their 18-year-old son to a school in downtown Chicago.
When they learned that Lourdes University was beginning an esports program beginning next year and planned to offer full athletic scholarships, Jordan reached out the school and soon found his collegiate home.
Over the past few years, “League of Legends” has quickly become one of the most popular games in the world. According to Bob Holtzman from Riot Games, the company behind “League of Legends,” the game has 100 million active players each month.
League of Legends is a multiplayer online battle arena game in which two teams of five players each try to push through an arena to the other team’s base, called a nexus, and destroy it. Each game can last 20 minutes to an hour.
The game was first released in 2009 and quickly gained popularity, especially among college students. There are now more than 750 “League of Legends” college clubs in North America, according to Holtzman.
More than 240 teams participate in the Campus Series, which is Riot Games’ regular season and regional playoffs that lead to the college championship, which took place May 25-28 in Los Angeles. Holtzman said the company is aware of 28 colleges and universities that offer scholarships to players of the game for the coming school year. In the 2016-17 school year, only 11 schools offered scholarships.
The 2017-18 school year will be the first for Lourdes University’s new esports program. According to the school’s director of esports, Cory Cahill, Lourdes, which is near Toledo, will have more than just a “League of Legends” team in its program.
Cahill said the school will field two “League of Legends” teams, at least one “Heroes of the Storm” team and will have individuals competing in “Hearthstone” and “Super Smash Bros.”
So what does the school get from offering scholarships to players of these games?
“We’re starting this esports program to spread our wings,” Cahill said. “We want to offer something new and give something to make us different from other schools. College esports is getting bigger and bigger, so the school wanted to kind of be in on the ground floor and be part of the innovation process.”
He said the publicity of the esports program already has had a positive effect.
While many may not consider “League of Legends” to be a sport, or consider those who play the game to be athletes, Lourdes University sees it differently. Just ask the university’s esports head coach, Benjamin Briner.
“It’s not a physically active sport, not as active as soccer, football or lacrosse, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a sport that doesn’t require a lot of practice, dedication and some dexterity, as well,” Briner said. “It might need more dexterity of the mind, the trained eye and fast-twitch muscles, rather than physical ability.”
Briner believes that the lack of physical ability in the sport is an advantage for esports since it could allow for disabled athletes to compete.
Cahill played volleyball in college and played football, basketball and volleyball in high school. He was a professional gamer from 2003 to 2009. He said he was on a professional circuit, traveled the country and had sponsorships during that time.
When he hears other balk at the idea of esports players not being athletes, he doesn’t take it very well, to say the least.
“The biggest thing is they haven’t done it. Playing these games takes a certain about of focus, dedication and practice; it’s exhausting,” he said. “If you’re sitting there playing a game for eight to 12 hours at a time, you’re wiped out afterward.
“Coming from someone who has done it, and has been the traditional-sports guy, you can’t balk at it until you’ve done it.”
While Jordan Zakrajsek began playing “League of Legends” as a way to blow off steam and relax, it’s become much more than that now.
“At times, it’s definitely stressful,” he said. “It almost feels like a job at times. Losing multiple games wears on you, and you have to take a break. Sometimes, long breaks are very helpful.”
When he’s not playing the game, Jordan Zakrajsek is usually watching or reading about the game or watching videos of the games of others to keep improving.
He’s now ranked in the top 0.8 percent of players of the world, but he wants to get even higher in the rankings.
“He does a lot of research. I was surprised that there was that much information out there about it,” Rick Zakrajsek said. “He’s always looking up information about the game, even while he’s playing it on another screen. It amazes me how he’s willing to go that extra step to get that information to make sure he’s prepared for what he’s doing.”
Jordan Zakrajsek’s scholarship is guaranteed for three years, and it can be extended to as many as five years depending on his performance in the game and in school, according to Amherst Athletic Director Casey Wolf.
Since there no rules on eligibility for esports, just yet, Lourdes University also has said they’re willing to extend the scholarship to include a master’s degree, according to the Zakrajsek family.
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