MIAMI GARDENS (CBSMiami)- St. Thomas University is about to kick off a brand new football program this summer, but that’s not the only new ‘sport’ recruiting players on campus.

Freshman Kelly Rivera is a student athlete. She doesn’t play basketball, softball or volleyball. Instead, she plays video games. Rivera is the manager of the school’s eSports team.

“It’s very similar to when you’re at home and you’re playing with your friends. You all get on one team to fight the other, right?” Rivera explained.

St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens has the first school sanctioned eSports team in South Florida.

The team, housed in a room above the basketball court, even falls under the athletic department where director Laura Courtley-Todd thinks it’s a perfect fit.

“To me, putting that together and marrying them and having the students walk through the activities, it mirrors all the kids on campus. It gets them out of their dorm room. Because they’re playing this in their dorm rooms. Now they have to walk through the gym, walk through the campus, come up stairs and be integrated with all the sports,” Courtley-Todd said.

St. Thomas is a member of the National Association of Collegiate eSports. NACE currently has more than 125 member schools, up from just seven in July 2017.

It’s doled out more than $15 million in scholarships and aid.

The average American spends more than seven hours a week playing video games. Rivera and her teammates spend way more than that.

“You lose track of time,” said Rivera.

She plays about 20 hours a week and she also ‘studies’ the game.

“It’s good to go online and watch other streamers. You can go on Twitch and watch plenty of other gamers practice. As you watch them you pick up their tips and tricks and guides to get better,” Rivera said.

According to Athletic Director Laura Courtley-Todd, Travis Isbell was STU’s first Esports coach. He launched the program with Kelly’s help.

The team currently has 10 members, but their practice space is equipped for 17 players.

So how do you find the best and brightest video game players on a college campus?

Computer science professor Sean Mondesire says look no further than his classroom.

“About 65 percent of them are already hardcore gamers. Or they’re streaming already the games that they play at home,” Mondesire said. “When I brought them all here, they were amazed at the professional level of the eSports team.”

He said many students already have the skills to be stars on the team and those same skills can translate into a job down the road.

“A lot of parents, when they come to see St. Thomas life, they ask me ‘What are the job prospects?’ The video gaming industry is very big right now. Looking ahead trying to create the next level games,” he said. “What’s nice is that with computer science they are getting the foundation. And I tell parents with that foundation they can do things in video games, game design, app development. All those things.”

These student athletes are also eligible for scholarships, either by winning competitions or through the school itself.

“We do offer some kind of merit scholarship for eSports players depending on their level of play,” Courtley-Todd said.

Rivera says she hasn’t won any scholarships yet, but she’s getting better every day.

“If you have the drive to work hard and improve in your skills and your gaming, then you can definitely find a place on our team,” she said. “We will help you get better overall, as a person, in school, and especially in the game, because that’s what we’re focused on.”

St. Thomas will soon have some local competition.

Barry University recently announced it will launch an eSports program this fall.

Lauren Pastrana

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