College League of Legends grows into professional opportunity

Now more than ever, it's feasible for aspiring League of Legends pros to go to college without sacrificing future professional opportunity. Riot Games

Maryville University won the League of Legends College Championship last year at the LCA Arena in Los Angeles. And this week, the Saints want to repeat as champion, as the team once again will make the trek to Southern California from St. Louis to battle alongside seven other varsity clubs throughout the region for domestic supremacy.

The event, once again held at the LCS Arena a week prior the start of the North American LCS summer season, will be another that raises the bar in a scene that has grown from small tournaments held in front of a few bystanders to being watched online in front of thousands.

"There's so much more exposure [in the college scene] now," Joshua "Pheqes" Quest, a prominent college League of Legends caster, told ESPN at the recent junior varsity final held in Long Beach, California. "Five years ago I wouldn't be talking to [ESPN], so that's one thing. There is just so much more exposure. The pioneering of Robert Morris University and bringing in scholarships has spread to so many different schools, and that's only good. It can only create bring more attention to collegiate esports."

Grassroots gaming has become a prime-time affair, and the college championship is now a tentpole event for Riot Games, placed between the Mid-Season Invitational at the end of May and the LCS kickoff in the middle of June. What was once seen as a side event has now become an actual breeding ground for possible professional players. The most famous recent example would be John "Papa Chau" Le, who starred on the Maryville championship team last year before transitioning over to the Echo Fox franchise for the 2018 NA LCS Spring Split. Papa Chau began in the academy league but found himself starting at points on the main Echo Fox roster. He finished the season playing in the academy league final in which Echo Fox fell to FlyQuest.

This year's crop of talent will look to follow in the footsteps of Papa Chau and others who have sharpened their skills in the collegiate world before branching off into the professional scene. At the forefront of it all, Maryville stands as the team to beat going into the competition. Returning to the roster from last year's squad is the team's star AD carry, Marko "Prototype" Sosnicki, who went the opposite route of many, starting off in the pro scene in the minor leagues before transitioning into getting an education while putting his League of Legends skills to good use.

While the Saints will be the team everyone is attempting to knock off its perch, the club to watch in terms of possible future success is the team Maryville has clashed with throughout the regular season of the college campaign: Columbia College. Also based in Missouri, Columbia dropped to Maryville in the final of the north regional but bounced back through the play-in tournament to secure its spot in the overall championship bracket.

While Maryville brings the cohesion and experience from last year's title run, there is not a team with as much individual skill as the Cougars of Columbia. The player all pro teams will have an eye on is Julien "Julien" Gelinas, the No. 3-ranked player on the North American challenger ladder, whose play in the tournament could dictate his future as a pro. Not to be outdone, the team's other solo laner on the topside of the map, Ian "MistyStumpy" Alexander, is No. 85 on the ladder. The one-two punch of the Cougars will resemble more of a Scouting Grounds preview than some would expect from a collegiate championship.

The success of the Saints and Cougars and their ability to bring in players of the level of Julien or Prototype is validation for the process college League of Legends has gone through the past five years. A few years ago, a Julien or MistyStumpy would have almost assuredly either had to give up on their dreams of being a League of Legends pro and focus solely on schoolwork or go all-in as a wayward attempt to become a professional League of Legends player. Now, with the collegiate scene infrastructure where it is, with countless teams across the nation offering scholarships and a free education to players on the cusp of becoming a pro, it allows a new avenue for top players to look into when thinking about the next step in their lives.

No longer does a 17-year-old Challenger player need to view his future as a crossroads between esports and a job. With the new wave of support through schools like Columbia, Maryville and UC Irvine -- which even opened its own esports arena a year and a half ago -- there is now a medium for aspiring pros who don't want to take the giant leap into the unknown that is esports.