COLUMBIA — It all started with a Madden tournament. Columbia College's new president at the time, Scott Dalrymple, challenged students to a competition featuring the football video game, and promised to pay for the tournament winner's textbooks if they could beat him.
He lost. But the Columbia College eSports team was born. Dalrymple quickly worked to assemble an elite eSports team. It picked up steam with a conversation during a volleyball game.
"I play volleyball with the president and this is his project," said Duong Pham, Columbia College's head coach. "So just in conversation, I mentioned I play this game [League of Legends] and when the opportunity came up, I volunteered to be on the search committee for a new coach."
In collegiate eSports, League of Legends is the most popular game. It features many roles and teams work to destroy opposing players and collect gold in order to earn points.
After Pham was hired, the team began recruiting. As one of very few schools in the country that offers scholarships in this area, eSports athletes came running. That's how the team found current captain Connor Doyle.
"A third-party analyst or scout was working with CC to identify top solo Q talents, and that person reached out to me and asked me if I was interested in playing collegiate eSports. It was funny, because I was," Doyle said.
In the team's first season, the Cougars are 5-0, although, each split team lost a game in their most recent tournament.
Jonathan Song, a sophomore player, likens the thrill he gets from League of Legends to another sport he has played.
"It actually compares to me in my tennis years," Song said, "when I'm down two sets and I need to come back. It's the same adrenaline I feel in League of Legends. I don't think anyone can actually understand that until they're in those shoes."
It is the Cougars' star player, though, that catches everyone by surprise. Ian Alexander has just one hand, but he is the best player on the team and is ranked 47th on the continent. He said he sees his disability as a way to one-up opposing players.
"When most people have two arms, and you're the top 47th player in North America, then being able to be above all those players with only one, seems like a good way to make fun of them," Alexander said.
His coach said what Alexander does what's nearly impossible.
"Imagine playing soccer with one leg, and a prosthetic," Pham said, "and you get into the World Cup, into the final against Brazil and do really well. That's how impressive it is what Ian does."
Now the team turns its attention to tournaments in the future, including uLOL, which is a national tournament with more than 500 teams competing. Riot Games, the creator of League of Legends, has pumped millions of dollars in prize money into the tournament over the last several years.
eSports can be fun and games for the players, but there is also a lot on the line in the coming months.