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Over 80 US universities offer esports scholarships as popularity grows

Students stare into computer screens as they game in the University of California, Irvine's special esports arena, in Irvine, California, on July 20, 2018. (Photo by Reuben Monastra)

IRVINE, California -- Universities offering exceptional athletes scholarships is nothing new, but the University of California, Irvine (UCI) here became the first public university in the United States to offer scholarships to exceptional esports players in 2016 -- and the school is not the only facility doing so.

According to the U.S. National Association of Collegiate eSports (NACE), while only one school offered a scholarship program in 2014, the number has drastically risen to over 80 schools this year. UCI, which is renowned for its computer science department, offered 14 male students an annual scholarship of 1,000 to 6,000 dollars (roughly 110,000-660,000 yen) during the 2017 academic year, and plans to raise the number of students to 22 for the upcoming academic year.

On the UCI campus located roughly 60 kilometers southeast of Los Angeles, there is a roughly 325-square-meter arena devoted to esports. A total of 72 high-performance computers sit in a row, and images of video game characters adorn the pillars. Among the computers, 12 are for exclusive use by the scholarship students making up the school's esports team that goes head-to-head with other clubs. As it is not uncommon for students to play for six or seven hours per day, the chairs are firm so that they do not get back aches even after sitting for such a long period of time.

The structure of a team is no different from conventional sports. There is a coach, assistant coach, an analyst that reviews gameplay, a coordinator that offers the players lifestyle support, and there is even a psychologist and a trainer that work as part of the team. This is because in esports, concentration and mental stamina during long periods of play, as well as fast reaction time operating the game controls and physical strength is required. Muscle training and running are included in players' training regime.

"I never even imagined any colleges would form their own teams, let alone offer scholarships for those teams," said James Lattman, 23, who is receiving scholarships to study business economics.

Team coordinator Hillary Phan, 22, said that a lot of the esports players are good with computers and math, and that the club members have futures as successful engineers and computer scientists ahead of them. While also attracting highly-skilled students for future human resources, offering the scholarship also helps the university stand out from the rest of the pack.

In fact, the scholarship money is donated by IT firms such as game console manufacturers and game developers. The computers are also provided free of cost. For these companies, the goal appears to be the cultivation of talented players to liven up the industry.

"(Esports) already surpassed viewership ... of some already-big traditional sports in the U.S.," said NACE Executive Director Michael Brooks, 29. "I absolutely believe that esports as a genre, as an industry, could surpass the viewership of (collegiate American) football."

(Japanese original by Hiromi Nagano, Los Angeles Bureau)

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