A college awarded a teen $40,000 in scholarships to play video games, and it’s part of a growing trend

Niles competing on League of Legends

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Niles competing on League of Legends
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Aiden Tidwell

Maryville University first-year student Aiden Tidwell starts his day off like many other college students. He wakes up around 8 a.m., hits the gym, grabs a quick dining hall breakfast, and grinds his way through about four hours of classes. The moment his classes end though, Tidwell swaps out the books for a coffee and a gaming headset and glues his eyes to a screen. Tidwell is a competitive video game player and is one of an increasing number of students around the country being offered a full-ride scholarship to compete at the collegiate level.

E-sports (the term used for competitive gaming) has long been a mainstream sport in China and Korea, but has recently seen a boom in the US and Europe. To get a sense how just how many people are watching e-sports, one need look no further than the 2017 League of Legends championship, which had over 106.2 million viewers. That’s more than the 2019 Super Bowl.

College e-sports players compete within a number of different games, including League of Legends, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch, and Rocket League. Partly due to the immense popularity of YouTube game streamers, more players are competing than ever before – and some estimate the industry will be worth $1.67 billion by 2021. A steady stream of universities are trying to tap into that market.

According to the National Association of Collegiate Esports, over 3,000 college students currently compete among 130 different teams. Since NACE formed in 2016, it estimates that schools have dished out over $15 million in scholarship aid to e-sports players.

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Tidwell, who goes by the gamer handle “Niles,” is one of those students. Maryville University covers the full cost of his tuition, in addition to his room and board and a meal plan. In a phone interview, Tidwell told INSIDER that he and his teammates train up to 40 hours per week on the game League of Legends. While playing games for a living might look easy from the outside, real professional pursuits aren’t for the faint of heart. In an interview with INSIDER, Daniel Clerke, Maryville University’s director of E-sports, said his players often train from 2 to 3 p.m. until they go to bed. One general manager for a professional League of Legends team said players can easily practice over 8 hours a day.

Under Clerke’s tenure, Maryville has won two League of Legends championships and has become the epicenter for some of the best young collegiate video game players. It was Clerke who offered Tidwell a full ride – without which Tidwell may not have attended college.

“When they offered me, [the scholarship] I was ecstatic,” Tidwell said. “It gave me so much more independence than I had at the time.”

Tidwell said it took some time for his mother to get on board with him committing to competitive video games. “My mother was initially adamantly opposed to me playing video games at all,” he said. But now, she’s one of his biggest supporters.

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Like athletes of more traditional sports, Tidwell said the hours spent practicing and travelling with his teammates cemented a strong bond.

“My team is my family,” Tidwell said. “We share a common passion that we put so much time into it.”

Tidwell said that while he has had a lifelong love of games, and in naturally competitive, it was a high school football knee injury that made him devote himself to e-sports. Now at the tail end of his freshman year, Tidwell said he’s considering playing professionally but has also developed a fascination for medicine.

Clerke said he expects around 150 national college e-sports programs by next year and said there should be a place for the most motivated players. In addition to potentially scoring scholarship money and setting yourself up for a career in the burgeoning video game industry, Clerke gave another attractive reason to try out for college: “It’ll get your parents off your back for playing video games.”