Over 300 colleges and universities are competing in the College League of Legends championship, Riot Games’s annual event for its popular multiplayer online battle arena. And this year, newcomers from the Peach Belt Conference will be playing in their own regional contest as well as vying for a spot at the finals. It’s the first National Collegiate Athletic Association conference to join Riot’s official tournament. The regular season will begin on January 15, with finals to come on June 7.

“This is the first time an NCAA conference has recognized League of Legends,” said Riot’s associate esports manager Michael Sherman in an email to GamesBeat. “We want League of Legends to be a college sport and conferences are a long-lasting, important part of college competition. Playing for a conference championship can be among a student-athlete’s most rewarding experiences during his or her college years. More broadly, this is another example of how colleges and their leaders are better supporting gamers on their campuses, the same way they do other sports.”

College League of Legends for North American schools began officially in 2014, but Sherman says that it built on what players were already doing.

“College League of Legends competitions have been happening for nearly as long as the game has been played,” said Sherman in an email to GamesBeat. “Originally, college competitions were a grassroots entity, with several different community organizations putting teams together. These were students creating competitions while going to school.”

Riot’s goal is to make League of Legends a staple in college sports, and it’s doing so by mimicking existing formulas in traditional sports. Before the Peach Belt joined, it already ran four regional conferences for the North, South, East, and West, with the victors and runners-up from each advancing to the College Championship.

“Part of making a great college sport, is making sure there’s strong competition,” said Sherman. “We wanted to make this season the most competitive yet and look forward to seeing that shape up with our four regional conferences competing in a Swiss format. Separately, the Peach Belt Conference teams are going to compete for their own conference title, just like other student-athletes on their campuses. When you think about the ever-expanding number of school-supported, varsity teams offering scholarships to players and what we hope are major improvements to the season format, we see this as the biggest College League of Legends season yet.”

Peach Belt competitors hail from Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina. It’s in Division II of the NCAA, and even before teaming up with Riot, the member schools already held their own League of Legends tournament. Now they’re amping up to start their regular season. Eight teams will go on to compete in a regional championship, and whoever takes first and second place will move on to Riot’s College Championship Play-In, which will be held from April 9 to 22.

“The players on campus are very excited,” said the Peach Belt’s assistant commissioner for communications Ken Gerlinger in an email. “We spent some time in the fall traveling to our member schools as they put their teams together and heard over and over again how appreciative the players are that we are recognizing their talents with a conference championship. We have also seen how administrators have begun to see the potential for what esports can bring to their campus and that has also built up a lot of momentum.”

Esports is thriving, with projected revenues to hit $2.5 billion by 2020. And it’s popular on college campuses. Organizations such as Tespa organize esports clubs and tournaments with the blessings of developers like Blizzard and Psyonix, offering potential scholarship opportunities for competitors. And there may be a lot of folks who want to compete — especially among those who play League of Legends. A survey found that four out of five players want to become either a professional gamer or streamer.

 

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