Curiosity Podcast Transcript: Get a College Scholarship... For eSports

The competitive landscape of eSports hasn't only spread to colleges and universities – it's now an activity that can land you a scholarship! In this podcast, Robert Morris University's Executive Director of eSports Kurt Melcher explains why his school was the first to offer a scholarship to League of Legends players, and why other schools are following suit.

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Curiosity Podcast Transcript

Cody Gough:

I'm curious why should people care about eSports?

Kurt Melcher:

If you think video games can add value to someone's time or life, then you should pay attention to eSports because it's the same as the NFL. It's the same as the Major League Baseball. It's the same as Major League Soccer. It's the best players in a competitive environment playing against each other to find an outcome.

Cody Gough:

Hi, I'm Cody Gough from Curiosity.com. Today, we're going to learn about professional and collegiate eSports. Every week, we explore what we don't know because curiosity makes us smarter. This is the Curiosity Podcast. By now, everyone's heard about the rise of eSports, with video game tournaments attracting millions of spectators worldwide, but beyond the viewers and dollars involved, what about the skills involved? What's the difference between a professional football player and a professional League of Legends player?

The differences may surprise you at least according to Kurt Melcher. He's the Executive Director of eSports at Robert Morris University, and he's not just an eSports advocate. He also has more than 20 years of experience playing and coaching soccer, one of those traditional sports that you may have heard of. I guess it's pretty popular in certain parts of the world. Whether you care about video games or not, you'll want to hear Kurt's unique point of view on what it takes to succeed in eSports, why they're so popular, and why you might want to start paying attention with the Executive Director of eSports at Robert Morris University.

I said eSports, not sports. Tell me what that means.

Kurt Melcher:

eSports are electronic sports. Really, it's video games that are played competitively.

Cody Gough:

Okay. That sounds simple enough.

Kurt Melcher:

It really is simple.

Cody Gough:

You can do anything competitively though. Right? How was this different than me just playing in a room with my friends?

Kurt Melcher:

Generally, it's organized I'd say in a team fashion. It has a large ... Because there's a difference between video games and eSports. Right? The thing that in my mind at least, and I'm sure some people may have different definitions, but the thing that differentiates it to me is the community underneath it or behind the game that elevates it to an eSports status because I think a lot of developers now are pointing out games that are saying, "This is the next eSport".

You can say that as much as you want, but the community really defines what is an eSport by elevating it on a pedestal because there's such a mass interest in it that creates that elite eSport competition, which like League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter-Strike, those are like the elite in my mind. There's a couple others too, but those are the top three.

Cody Gough:

Let's just set the stage if people are not familiar with eSports at all. You mentioned three games, League of Legends, Dota 2, and Overwatch?

Kurt Melcher:

Counter-Strike, and Overwatch should be probably put in that mix.

Cody Gough:

Counter-Strike. Okay. If someone asks me, "What is soccer?", and I had a one sentence answer, it would be people kick a ball and try to get it into the other person's net. Basketball, people bounce a ball and try to throw it in the other player's hoop. How would you distill, let's go down the top ones, League of Legends, Dota 2, and Counter-Strike?

Kurt Melcher:

League of Legends and Dota 2 are similar in the fact that they're defined as a game type called a 'MOBA', which is a multiplayer online battle arena. It's five players on the same team are playing against five players, and you're trying to destroy the other team's home base more or less, so it's almost like in a way capture the flag. You play on a map that's a mirror image, so both sides look the same. A couple different lanes and a couple different map objectives through the way, so you're trying to kill the other champions, the other five players you're playing against, and there's a fog of war environment, and you have to really communicate well with your team to have certain synergies. There's over a hundred different champions you can pick from, and that's a really important part of your team chemistry between the five players that you pick, so there's a process that goes through for your team selection.

We choose a player, then they counter-pick, and then we choose a player, so it's really detailed and it's really nuanced, and it's not just really like the video games that you may be thinking about Super Mario Brothers. There's a real deep strategy and a real deep team-based component and tactics that are involved to have success in those game.

Cody Gough:

This is one of the most popular games, if not, the most played game in the world. I don't want to get too into the minutia since many people listening may have played this game, but what you're essentially saying is, "I'm a player. I've got to pick of up to a hundred different characters or champions that I choose, and then the other team can see who that is, then they choose", and that goes back and forth like that.

Kurt Melcher:

Right.

Cody Gough:

There's a whole draft process where you're drafting a team at the start of a match trying to balance and use different formulas, like I have very complicated game of rock, paper, scissors, and then you have the five-on-five match during which you can kill each and all that, but the ultimate goal is to destroy this base.

Kurt Melcher:

Right. Correct. You summed it up perfectly.

Cody Gough:

Wonderful. Okay. Just want to make sure that we've got the stage set. Also, by the way, for some background on Dota's name, there was a game called 'Defense of the Ancients', and then the sequel, they just called 'Dota 2'.

Kurt Melcher:

Right. Right. Defense of the Agents 2. Right.

Cody Gough:

It's not actually called ... I thought the official name was just Dota 2.

Kurt Melcher:

Boy, everyone calls it 'Dota 2', so I mean, I think we all know the origins as Defense of the Ancients, whether that guy left officially in the dust. I'm not sure.

Cody Gough:

Okay, so then, there's Counter-Strike, and this is the first-person shooter like a Halo or a Call of Duty game, but why Counter-Strike?

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah.

Cody Gough:

Why is this the big one?

Kurt Melcher:

Counter-Strike is in a lot of ways almost a perfectly balanced game in the sense that it really, you rely so much on technical ability in that game, and tactical ability is important too, but the technique that the elite players have are unbelievable because it's so specific to having to know what kind of weapon you have, and the ability of the weapon, and how to control that weapon, and where you have to be on the map in relation to everyone else, and there's economy between rounds that's so important, so Counter-Strike is ... I've heard of that a lot of times referred to as like real-time chess in a way that really game knowledge and technical ability is so, so important in that game. The knock against Counter-Strike though is the little bit of the content obviously because you're playing terrorists against counter-terrorists who are ... The terrorists are trying to set a bomb, and the counter-terrorists are trying to diffuse the bomb, so collegiately, which I come from, there's some sensitivity around it. I think that's still part of the old-school stereotype of video games or violent and kids will go out and just kill people, but after playing these games, which has been scientifically proven time and time again, but that stigma still persists.

Ashley Hamer:

Hey, Ashley here. Since 1984, there's been at least two dozen studies on whether violent video games cause real-world violence. The website, Kotaku has a really handy article that summarizes their findings, which you can find in the show notes, but suffice it so say the evidence is mixed. Some studies say violent video games lead to more aggression, others say they have a calming effect because they help people blow off steam, and many on both sides suffer from publication biases. The things that make people commit violence are also incredibly complex, and you probably can't just explain them with a single variable like violent video games.

Kurt Melcher:

I think Counter-Strike is an unbelievable game to watch. It's probably one of the most popular games. It was on TBS through the ELEAGUE, and it's coming into season three of Counter-Strike professionally played on linear TV, so I feel like the stigma of first-person shooter is a slowly but surely kind of waning. It'll take some more time though I think.

Cody Gough:

The big differences between that and like a Call of Duty or Halo is those are more tactical. You need to know the maps. You need to know the right positions. Counter-Strike is more I have to point my gun in a very precise way to hit these things?

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah. I don't want to diminish the tactics involved in Counter-Strike is that it's super important, but I feel like Counter-Strike is the most technical game that probably eSport that there is of just the ability of mouse and keyboard and timings and precision. I think it's the most precise game there is. In fact, I think Counter-Strike players look down on Call of Duty players think they're casuals because a console, you don't have that same precision as you do with a mouse and a keyboard.

Cody Gough:

Sure. That makes sense, and you talk about precision. I follow eSports to a degree, and I know that in South Korea when they're playing StarCraft, they actually measure their activity by actions per minute, and there are Korean players who can perform more than 300 actions per minute, and an action being defined as something a command they're giving their forces or clicking around. That's 300 in a minute. Is that kind of speed necessary for League of Legends or Dota or for Counter-Strike or is it more about precision and control over the mouse and all those things?

Kurt Melcher:

I think it almost varies in some ways per eSport. I think for League of Legends, it's a matter of ... I think that precision is important especially for skill shots and such and landing ultimates, but I feel like in League of Legends, your ability to process an insane amount of information and come to the right conclusion is probably if I had to define what is the most special trait of the best players, I think that's the one, because you have to know where you are on the map, and what part of the game is it, and where are the other opponents, and where are your teammates, and what are the objectives, and should I be farming, should I be trying to get this objective. I mean, to me, that's the most important part of a League of Legends player is being able to come to and make the right decision, and make that call in game, whereas in Counter-Strike, all those things, everything I just mentioned are equally important, but there's such a precision element of technical skill that probably doesn't exist in League of Legends, of getting the right shot, of positioning your rifle, the exact spot of where you predict somebody coming around a corner, and sometimes even blind-shoting and timing, when you should is unbelievable.

Cody Gough:

The precision that you talk about and the variables remind me of American Football. Lots of players on the field. They can be in different places. You need to know where you've got a pocket to throw to. Do you have plays that you practice? Do you have Xs and Os on a chalkboard where you're telling the players where to go that they memorize?

Kurt Melcher:

Not really. I'd say there's a couple of [cheese 00:10:59] routines you could run from the beginning of a game let's say of League of Legends, or maybe if you all rush into a lane and try to catch someone out. It's like low-risk, high-reward if you're able to do something that you don't really see in the pro side because it's just everybody's run through every scenario a billion times so they know the exact routines they should be doing, so plays really, it's so fluid that it's hard to ... In football, you have a stoppage and a restart, and in League of Legends, it's the clock is running and it's all fluid, so there's no real reset time to do this or that. Now, there's team calls, say, "Okay. We're going to split, push right now, or let's go get dragging", so there's definitely calls in game where there's I guess that would be like a real-time football call, like soccer or something.

You could say like, "Hey, we're running this corner kick play" would be more akin to that.

Cody Gough:

You don't have communication with the players during tournament play, right?

Kurt Melcher:

No. The coaches don't have. It's only in between rounds pre and post game.

Cody Gough:

How young are these coaches? Are you hiring guys right out of college?

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah. In some instances, they're right out of college. Our head coach, his name is Ferris Ganzman, he graduated at Loyola University three years ago, and he's got a full-time job, so right after that, he comes over for practices for our eSports program. He's, I want to say maybe he's 25, but we have also a couple coaches that are ... We have a coach from DePaul University who's in grad school. We have a coach from UIC who's just finishing up, so it's young.

Cody Gough:

How's that working out?

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah. There's a couple different ways. When I'm looking to hire a coach, I want to know that they have elite game knowledge because they're going to be able to provide value to the high-level players we have, and two, since they're so close in age, I want to make sure that they are responsible enough that they can handle discipline and they could handle being on top of and a leader or a mentor to a team, because sometimes, it's a challenge if you're that close in age because you're not there to be their friend. You're there to be their coach and their mentor, so it's a challenge in some ways because they are so close in age, but I have a pretty good eye to weed out the ones I feel like at least that can handle the responsibility.

Cody Gough:

Sure. It sounds from all the tactics you've talked about, communication is pretty important for these players. Talk about how that comes into play versus traditional athletics you've coached.

Kurt Melcher:

The similarities are that you have to be in contact, communicating with each other all the time. Because there's a fog of war environment, you have to tell other players what you're seeing and what's happening in the part of the map that you're in so the other players know what's happening. If you're making a call, say like, "We should do this objective", you need to explain that and the reason why, or get those sentiments across. The differences are that in soccer, if I'm communicating, I could really let a guy have or if someone said, "Why did you do that?" or whatever, then I could physically run that emotion off a little bit or just work harder physically, but in eSports, it's such a mental game. I'm not able to smash my keyboard on the table because I'm angry.

You have to be so mentally strong and focused to be able to channel a negative event into a positive where you're not ruining your team by just releasing energy or emotion negatively. I feel like in eSports, you really have to be mentally disciplined, keep team in mind all the time, and keep a positive mindset because you want the best results out of your team and from yourself, so keeping everything positive and pushing towards a team victory through that positivity is important.

Cody Gough:

It mirrors a lot of sports in that way because precision is more important than brute strength like golf.

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah. Absolutely. Right. Right. Your golfers ... That's a good point, right?

It's not going to help you chuck in your driver into the lake. Right? You're just going to have to go get it or smashing it, so golf is a good example of how you really have to channel and be in charge of your emotions and focus everything through the positive.

Cody Gough:

When emotions are running high in a tournament or in a practice, is there a physical outlet for athletes playing eSports to exert some of that? Let's say the character gets killed and they are waiting to respond. Do you keep a stress ball next to their keyboard or something or something for them to hit so they're not breaking monitors?

Kurt Melcher:

No. That's part of that mental discipline that comes into play where there's going to be negative events no matter what. Right? Through any competition, there's going to be a negative outcome to some scenario in the game. It's just a matter of how do you channel yourself back to positive or back to at least a neutral to help your team? That's easy to say, but it's hard to do. I get angry. I throw controllers when I'm playing a PS4 sometimes. I'm not proud of it, but -

Cody Gough:

No, those are expensive.

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah. For sure, so that's really part of being an elite player is being able to have that mental discipline to overcome.

Cody Gough:

How does that compare globally? Is that you think the American perspective or is that the way the sport is developing everywhere, and are we talking more pro or collegiate level?

Kurt Melcher:

I think it's for all to be honest. You see it at the elite level, on the pro level. Right? You don't see guys rage off or chuck a mouse at all, because it affects team negatively. I think if you look at the say South Koreans who have been historically the most dominant in League of Legends, they're like robots. They're machines, but that's just because they're so disciplined. That's not to say they don't have emotions. They a hundred percent do, but through their training, I feel like they're probably the most elite, and that's why they've had in some ways, obviously not to diminish their ability or their technical ability, but I think just through their training, they're the more disciplined mentally teams that are around.

Cody Gough:

Does that translate to high-performance globally or they're kind of the bar to beat usually?

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah, they are the bar to beat. There's no doubt about that. They were probably the first in ... I'm talking about region like South Korea with StarCraft. Years ago, they formed a professional league, and the region as a whole, not just players, but also community and fans embrace these sports. They didn't look at it as a waste of time. They didn't see it as negative.

They believed it as a competitive sport, so I think that put them in the earliest, and that's why we're seeing them are ahead of the game in many different titles. One, because it's embrace, and two, because they've had a head-start on through just the whole development of the professional scene, and coaching, and structure, and the best practices where I think the rest of the regions in the world are still catching up and learning on the fly.

Cody Gough:

You talked about practices. Is there a preseason, and when is the season?

Kurt Melcher:

For League of Legends, it pretty much goes almost year-round. The world championships are very end of October, maybe first week of November. Right now, we're on a summer split, and then it goes into spring, summer, and then it goes into the fall, which leads into the world championships.

Cody Gough:

You're kind of a pioneer in the world of collegiate eSports. Right? Talk a little bit about over the last couple of decades how eSports have evolved and how you found yourself the director in eSports department at a university.

Kurt Melcher:

Sure. I think when you look at the history of video games back to I think probably people of my age, the Atari 2600 and some of those first games, outlaw or even war, those were pretty basic games, but I love them. I was engrossed with them. I played them a lot.

I had every console since then, every Nintendo. I've had a gaming PC as soon as I convinced my parents to get me one, so it's just been something I've been super passionate about around gaming and just the next evolution of different consoles came out. I remember when the first Sega came out, and then even the first PlayStation was just a big step-forward technology wise. I guess you could say eSports evolved once broadband internet was available because you were able to then play against friends at their house while you're at your house, so you had that connectivity and you were able to play online rather than just like person-to-person, which opened up a whole new world of competitive gaming because it was so accessible then.

Ashley Hamer:

The very first networked multiplayer game dates all the way back to 1973. It was a simple spacecraft war game called 'Empire' that was written for the PLATO computer system, but the golden age of online gaming probably started around the turn of the 2000s when the advent of broadband internet coincided with games like EverQuest, Diablo 2, Counter-Strike, and Halo.

Kurt Melcher:

I think that's where video games, along with the technology of the systems, and also the accessibility and the connectivity has really elevated video games and eSports to where we see it now.

Cody Gough:

With the advent of online connectivity, it wasn't, "Oh, I'm better than all my friends in my living room". It became, "Oh, there are ladder systems and ranking systems, and now I'm better than everyone in North America or in Korea".

Kurt Melcher:

Right.

Cody Gough:

Do you know when was the breaking point when money started to get involved in this because it feels like in order there to be a professional scene, we're not talking ... Collegiate athletics is a little different, but in terms of the professional, how old are we talking about? Were there big tournaments in the mid-90's, late 90's?

Kurt Melcher:

There were tournaments and there were actually even ... In 2006, I think MLG had a series of a competitive play on USA Network, but it wasn't for the money that we're seeing now, even comparatively. I'd say the first real money that was put into eSports was through, probably the most significant was through Dota, Dota 2, which they had a compendium, which is actually crowdfunded. Through this game, I would go on and support this big tournament they have every year called 'The International', which is like the combination of the Dota 2, which is the game title finals, and for $20, I could buy in-game items, but half of that money would go to the prize pool. A couple of years ago, we saw that prize pool up around, I think it was like $11 million, and that made massive news.

The year after, I think last year's was right around 20 to $19 million, and The International is coming up in September and I think the projections will surpass that, but prize money is great. It drives new stories around eSports, but to me, that's not the arrival of eSports. It's just sort of a symptom of it, and even though I don't ... I don't think I've played Dota 2 once this whole year, but I'll still buy the compendium just to support The International, which sounds strange, but it's just supporting what you believe in, what you want to back, but the money behind eSports is great. I think it's better when it gets funneled into player salary where it can sustain an ecosystem of a range of teams, rather than just one team winning 20 million.

Cody Gough:

That's what you consider to be the deciding factor that says, "All right. Cool. eSports are here. They're serious", you would say the player salaries?

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah. I think player salaries is a good metric [sale 00:22:27] to almost determine the health of an ecosystem, and I don't know. You could probably say Major League Baseball is sick because there's too much money in it, but we're seeing in League of Legends professional side that there's the raising minimum salary limits. Overwatch franchise model is coming out. Overwatch is a game, and there's a professional league being launched. They're going to have set limits about minimum salaries for players, so I think those kind of decisions and those backings through a publisher and the team organizations create a working ecosystem that is sustainable.

Cody Gough:

Interesting. You come from an athletics background. You were originally a soccer coach?

Kurt Melcher:

Correct. Correct. Yeah. For over 15 years, Associate Athletic Director at Robert Morris University and coached the soccer team.

Cody Gough:

Okay. How do you compare your experience coaching soccer and looking at a team like that and working with those dynamics of the athletes with e-athletes, or I guess you would just call them 'Regular athletes' in eSports?

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah.

Cody Gough:

Are they athletes or e-athletes?

Kurt Melcher:

I just call them athletes to be honest, and I guess it's all about perspective. Just to go backwards a little bit, so my background in video games, I've loved video games my whole life. I've continued to play them. I play them even with my kids now. I probably play more video games than my kids do.

It's just something I'm passionate about, something that I like to do in my off time. It's not like I'm taking away from family time. It's just rather than watch TV or a movie, I'd rather go play a video game. Generally, I've been pretty good at video games too. You know those people that just have that talent?

I've consider myself above average over across a bunch of different titles, but League of Legends, I was just getting demolished. I was in aw of the players I was playing with and against that I couldn't no matter how much time I put into it, I couldn't really get better. I was getting better, but just the skill cap of the players I was against was amazing. There was by a light bulb moment then when I said, "This game, because it's played five versus five on an online map, this game could be a sport at our school", and I knew that there was a small collegiate system already, so I put a proposal together of how I thought it could be a sport and how we could sponsor that sport similar to how we do other sports at our school like baseball, basketball, football, and I brought it to our administration. The initial reaction is always a little bit of rolling of the eyes and, "Are you serious? This can't be right", but our school I think honestly, they were able to listen and they saw the same merits.

I think once you talk it through, I think they see the same reasons why it makes sense that I did, and we were able to launch the first varsity scholarship program at Robert Morris University in 2014 for League of Legends.

Ashley Hamer:

This isn't just a flash in the pan. The number of U.S. schools offering eSports scholarships has ballooned in just a couple of years according to the 2017 collegiate eSports report from eSports publication, The Next Level. In 2015, a year after Robert Morris University started the trend, there were three schools with eSports scholarship programs. A year later, there were 15. That's five times as many in just one year, and that doesn't even count schools outside of the U.S..

Cody Gough:

How many schools are participating, and are we talking division one schools? Are we talking big 10 schools? What does the competitive landscape look like?

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah. If we look at League of Legends, it's the most popular video game there is and it's probably the most popular video game played competitively in collegiate as well. This last season, I want to say there were over 1,200 teams across U.S., so it's ranging from, yeah, division one schools to two, division two, divisio three, NAI, all of those schools, and there could be multiple teams that are entered, so all of those teams competed, and then they through a series of seasons almost, they had a competitive season broken down into conferences. You would advance out of those subsets into a next group and a next group, and a next group to find the best in North America. There's also Canadian teams.

Cody Gough:

This is international too though. Right? Aren't these games usually popular in Southeast Asia and other places?

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah. Absolutely. Now, we're seeing in actually a bunch of different regions collegiate systems formed and organized, and in Europe, there's something called the 'EU Master Series', so they take the best League of Legends teams from a variety of different conferences from Spain, from Portugal, from Germany, from England. They find a champion from those countries and advance on to a European championship, and then from there, there's actually now for the first time a world championship, the ICC. It's going to be held in China, so they're taking the European, North American, Korean, and Chinese finalists in, and that's happening in September for a world championship.

Cody Gough:

What's the gender breakdown?

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah. Gender? eSports has a long way to go still because it's I'd say 98% skews male.

Cody Gough:

Are these male leagues or are they all co-ed?

Kurt Melcher:

No, it's definitely co-ed, but just for whatever reason, we haven't seen elite player ... Even on the professional side, we haven't seen elite female players come through on any pro teams. One. Maybe on Renegades, Maria, but we just haven't seen it yet. Now, I'm not sure what that's a condition of.

I wonder if it's not a problem that we're experiencing before college, because there has been ... If anyone who's played online games, there's a little toxicity sort of ... When anything gets competitive, people like to place blame and get upset, and it's an easy outlet especially with the anonymity of an online game to just let someone have it if you're not happy with their performance or how they did. If you recognize I think maybe like an in-game name that skews female or if you're on voice comms and you could tell that it's a female voice, there's sometimes, I'm afraid there's a lowest common denominator of an attack you can make which sometimes could be nasty, so I wonder if we're not disincentivizing female players to play a competitive level because I'm sure they'll just be like, "I don't need this hassle. I'm going to do something else rather than take the abuse", because anyone coming up through the ranks in any game, but League of Legends, as you'd go through promotions, people are getting really serious about it, so I'm not sure what, because I know just coming from traditional sports that female athletes are just as motivated and are just as competitive as males.

There's no way you can tell me, "They just don't like it". That makes zero sense to me, and I don't have any science to back that up, but it's just what I know. I think over time, maybe I think as collegiate forms, we'll see it form in high schools, and that'll provide in my opinion some safe environments for females to be able to beat males in a safe space where you're not getting attacked or yelled at. I'll make this prediction here. We'll see female professional players, and they'll probably be some of the best in the world, but it's going to take some time.

Ashley Hamer:

Female gamers aren't as rared as you'd think. According to 2017 statistics from the Entertainment Software Association, 41% of U.S. gamers are women, but a report published in 2017 by game analytics company, Quantic Foundry found that when it comes to the kinds of games that are essential to eSports, women's slice of the pie gets a lot smaller. Women make up only 10% of MOBA players, 7% of strategy in first-person shooter players, and a measly 4% of people playing tactical shooters. As the company's co-founder, Nick Yee pointed out to Kotaku, a lot of these game categories, one, don't have many female protagonists, and two, require playing online with strangers, where as Kurt said, the lowest common denominator can rear its ugly head.

Cody Gough:

Right now, are there any collegiate or professional outlets that are all female?

Kurt Melcher:

I believe I saw there's one school, Stephenson College. I'm not even sure where it is, but I think it's an all-girls college. There's not many of those around either anymore, but they formed a scholarship Overwatch program that's launching in the fall of 2017, but that's the only one I know of. In our program, we have, I want to say maybe three females that are on scholarship, and we're definitely open to it and we would love more female players, and I think it adds just a great dynamic and it's a safe environment that we create and we're supportive of it. Just for whatever reason, we haven't seen them come through.

Cody Gough:

Sure. If they have a good ranking on the online leader boards and things, do you look at just that or do you also look at academic performance or other activities?

Kurt Melcher:

Probably the first metric though is definitely what's your rank. That tells the first story, and if it's something that's worth looking into, then they get on the phone with them. They're communicating with them, but yeah, we definitely have to have the academics to get into school and be able to handle school, but also then, I think we all try to as much as you can through the recruiting process, really with any sport is try to make a determination on character because that's really so important similar to any sport, because you have to be a good teammate first and be a great player second. We've seen it through history of all traditional sports. Right?

It doesn't matter how great of players you have if you're not a good teammate or if you don't have a good team. Whatever that Olympic team was, basketball, remember that had the best NBA players didn't win gold. Didn't even qualify for medals maybe is a good example, so that's the same as it is in traditional sports as in eSports. You have to have really skilled players, and then have a good team dynamic and chemistry.

Cody Gough:

Sure. It's like Falco in Star Fox.

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah.

Cody Gough:

He'd be their best, but he's just so cocky.

Kurt Melcher:

Right. I know. What a jerk.

Cody Gough:

Yeah. Is there anything we didn't cover in terms of the Robert Morris University program or in terms of collegiate e-athletics that you think we should have touched on?

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah. In 2014, we started the world's first varsity program where we offer scholarships. Now, in the fall of 2017, the last count, we're at 66 zero schools that are offering formalized program and scholarships, so it's growing rapidly and quickly, and I still get calls I'd say every month or every couple of weeks of a different program that are interested in exploring the space and how they can add, so I think it's growing rapidly now. University of Utah, Power 5 conference just a couple of months ago announced that they're going to begin a scholarship program, so I feel like once those big schools like University of Utah, University of California Irvine is another one, division one programs add, then it makes it a safer add for the next big school to say, "Okay. They're doing it. It's not just Robert Morris. That makes sense", so in my opinion, I think we'll see a lot more schools rapidly add.

In five to seven years, I believe that all schools more or less will have some sort of formalized or scholarship program.

Cody Gough:

Wow. What do you say to people who are skeptical about the athleticism of eSports? How can you compare League of Legends to basketball?

Kurt Melcher:

That comes down to the question of, "Is it a sport?", and some people like that category or that characterization is really important. To me, it doesn't matter. I think it is a sport. I think you split hairs if you say, "What's more of a sport, American Football or baseball? What would you say is more of a sport, or tennis to golf, or NASCAR to Formula 1?" You start to say what is or isn't a sport is a slippery slope. Bowling, right?

To me, anything that has a mass behind it that is competitive and collegiately can provide value to the students through a team setting in a competitive situation I think adds value to what their collegiate experience is because that's the benefit of athletics in colleges to be honest. It's like not every school is like Alabama. In fact, most schools, our athletics is 100% ... There's no way we're making any money in our small football or our basketball team. Those are all value add for the education component, and that's why it makes a hundred percent sense to me to have eSports in an organized varsity setting where you're providing value that the students are through their participation on that team are having a richer outcome once they graduate, and that's what they're going to have to do in the workforce anyway.

They're working in a team. They're going to have to take direction from some manager, similar to what they're doing as a coach, so I think it's just opening doors for a new subset of students to be able to experience athletics.

Cody Gough:

That makes a lot of sense. I want to wrap up by doing a quick curiosity challenge. I'm going to challenge you, and you can take a second to think about this. Tell me something I don't know that doesn't have anything to do with eSports or college athletics.

Kurt Melcher:

Let's see. Did you know that I wear a size 12 shoe on my right foot and a 12 and a half in my left foot?

Cody Gough:

That is the most challenging challenge I have been given. I did not know that.

Kurt Melcher:

Right. It's on the lace that is very difficult to shoe shops. Most of the time, I just have to smoosh my toes in.

Cody Gough:

Does that affect your athletic performance?

Kurt Melcher:

No. I just have smooshed toes most of the time and toenails fall off. That's how it goes.

Cody Gough:

Wow. Fair enough. All right. I've got one for you, and you may already know this because it sounds like you're very ... You are very plugged into eSports and the way video games affect us and everything.

On Curiosity.com, there is an article researchers from Queen Mary University in London have actually found that playing strategy games such as StarCraft may boost cognitive performance in several areas. The study gathered 72 participants that play 40 hours of video games over a six-day week period, and half played StarCraft and have played The Sims, which The Sims is not really a game.

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah.

Cody Gough:

It's just kind of a -

Kurt Melcher:

You just manage your people and economy, and those things.

Cody Gough:

Yeah. Results show that the StarCraft players' performance in psychological tests, as well as their speed and accuracy in cognitive flexibility tests all improved. Do you see increased academic performance from your athletes?

Kurt Melcher:

I can't say I see anything because once they come to our program, they've been doing it for a long time, so we try to get the best players we can get. I feel like in regards to that study, they're smart as they're going to get I guess because maybe it is an enhancement because they have been playing already eSports, but I feel like the academic component to our teams is that, and I think one that knocks me here sometimes is I go, "They're not going to go to class. All they're going to do is play video games", but we maintain their eligibility, make sure that they are eligible, so they do go to class and they have to maintain a certain GPA to be on their team, so we leverage the passion of their game for them ... They don't want to let their teammates down, so they're going to do extra work or they're going to perform extra well in class so they're able to practice and play. If someone falls underneath that GPA threshold, then we don't let them practice at least in the organized team, but they can go to their dorm and practice, but they want to be in that environment.

They want to be with the teams and their coaches, so I fully believe that study because there's just so much going on. You really have to be so aware to the instant, and also to the planning and just being able to process so much information that's not just hitting one ... I'm no doctor, but it's not just hitting one part of the brain. It's hitting I would think planning and the emotions. You have to control your emotions within the game, so I believe that because it really does take ... I'm tired after I play StarCraft not on high level, but competitively. It's hard because you have to concentrate so much.

Cody Gough:

Yeah. It sounds like you need to incorporate some kind of Zen meditation in your training.

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah. Right. Right.

Cody Gough:

One very final question. What gets you curious, and what are you curious about outside of your field?

Kurt Melcher:

Outside of my field, I'm really curious on the performance angles outside of eSports and just in traditional sports, and I love watching the Olympics to see the elite of the elite. I love watching just any kind of elite, whether it's individual or team component, whether it's the World Cup to see like what kind of tactics are being used and what's the training regiments. Any kind of performance sort of focused or laser-driven drilled down metrics or procedures, that's what really gets me curious and interested to learn more about -

Cody Gough:

You mentioned the Olympics. When is League of Legends going to be an Olympic sport?

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah. I believe it will be, and there's ... I think it's not that easy to add one. It's probably way easier to add just a sport like beach volleyball, which is i think just recently added, but when you're involving another company like Riot Games that owns League of Legends and tons of games owns Riot, that I think gets a little dicey sometimes, but we are seeing a little bit of headway in Asia. There's these I want to say that ...

I can't remember the exact title of it, but it's like a Pan Asian games that are for a medal consideration that's being League of Legends being added to that, so I think there are some IOC steps and processes in my mind. I think they're probably waiting to see that it's going to have the longevity that they would like it to have, but I think we will see it in the next probably two iterations of the Olympics, I think we'll see eSports.

Cody Gough:

Wow. Before 2030 you think maybe -

Kurt Melcher:

Yeah. I think before 2030.

Cody Gough:

Wow.

Kurt Melcher:

Maybe. When is the [last Angels 00:40:18] games? That'd be perfect.

Cody Gough:

Thank you again so much for coming in. I've been talking to Kurt Melcher, the Executive Director of eSports at Robert Morris University. Thanks again for coming in and thanks for all the info.

Kurt Melcher:

Thanks for having me.

Cody Gough:

Before I wrap up this week, I've got some trivia for you. This is your chance to earn some extra credit for those of you who have been paying attention to Curiosity.com over the last couple of weeks. Here's your question. What is the hottest, spiciest food on earth, and for a bonus point, where does it rank on the Scoville scale?

For context, the flagship red variety of Tabasco sauce measures up to 5,000 units on the Scoville scale. The answer, in just a minute. For answers to any questions you've got about this podcast, you can refer to the show notes where we've got lots of helpful links to learn more This includes links to subscribe to our show on iTunes, Stitcher, and everywhere else podcasts are found. If you're already a subscriber and you enjoyed this episode, then please take a second to give us a five-star rating. It only takes a few taps on your device, and I know that every podcast says this, but it's true.

It really would help our ability to bring you fresh content every week. If you have suggestions for future episodes or questions for comments about anything we've covered, then please email us at Podcast@Curiosity.com. I literally read every message, so believe me, someone will read it. Here at Curiosity, we cover a wide variety of topics every day, and that brings us to today's extra credit answer. The hottest food on earth is the Dragon's Breath chili pepper, and it comes in at 2.4 million units on the Scoville scale. You're not really supposed to eat it.

Researchers developed the Dragon's Breath pepper because a lot of people are allergic to anesthetic, and this can be applied to the skin because it's so strong, it numbs it. The easiest way to learn more about this and lots of other fun stuff every day is to download the Curiosity app for your Android or iOS device. Thanks to Ashley Hamer, editor extraordinaire for her fast facts this episode, and thanks to you for listening. Extra special thanks and a virtual high five if you've told your friends to check us out. That's all for this week for the Curiosity Podcast. I'm Cody Gough.

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Written By Curiosity Staff August 15, 2017