Canal Winchester resident Seth Ho has played his way into a college scholarship – but not in the way one might think.

Ho, 18, a graduate of Bloom-Carroll High School, will attend Ashland University in the fall, thanks in part to a $4,000 annual scholarship for esports – competitive, multiplayer video games.

Ho said he has been playing competitively since he was 11. He will play “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” as part of Ashland’s esports team.

“Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” is a PC-based first-person shooter game.

Esports have been growing in popularity for the past several years and both ESPN and the Turner company are broadcasting tournaments. Esports is projected to become a billion-dollar industry within the next few years, according to Newzoo, a firm that tracks trends in gaming, entertainment and esports.

Ho is among the first class of students to receive an esports scholarship from Ashland, which is one of 66 universities that have joined the National Association of Collegiate Esports.

The scholarships, capped at a maximum of $4,000 annually, have been awarded to 14 Ashland students thus far, said Josh Buchanan, who is in his first year as esports head coach at the university.

“We’re one of the first schools to offer a scholarship. We compete like any other school sport, but do so online,” Buchanan said. “It just shows the dedication that the school has in esports. It’s a legitimate form of competition and skill.”

A team of about 30 players will practice in Ashland’s state-of-the-art gaming center, which has more than two dozen gaming computers and chairs and two 65-inch, high-definition TV screens, Buchanan said. The team will be divided into squads that specialize in one of six video game titles, such as “Overwatch,” “Fortnite Battle Royale” and “Super Smash Bros.” in addition to the game Ho plays.

“We’ll have two or three practices a day where we’ll work with students on different skills in the game,” Buchanan said. “We do watch film just like you would in a traditional sport and help develop our players.”

Squads will have the opportunity to play in various leagues, some national or based on region or skill level, he said. If teams are good enough, they could travel to compete in larger tournaments in front of audiences.

“One week we could be playing against UC Berkeley, and the next week, we’re playing against Youngstown (State University),” Buchanan said. “Each player plays one game (title), just like you’d be focused on one sport in college.”

Esports scholarship recipients must meet the same academic requirements – full-time enrollment and a minimum 2.5 GPA – as other student athletes.

“We’re run by the athletic department. The students are going to school for an awesome education and, hopefully, this is just part of it,” Buchanan said.

Like many other gamers, Ho said, he got started by playing “Call of Duty.”

At first, he said, he thought a college scholarship for esports was too good to be true. He credits his parents, Michael and Kimberly Ho, for believing in him.

“My parents are both hard workers, and at first, it seemed too easy,” Ho said.

Ho said he plans to major in digital media and he sees “endless possibilities” for what he’ll do after college. He hopes to pursue esports on a professional level, possibly as a player, coach or working in esports broadcasting.

Buchanan said while he was recruiting Ho, he interviewed him and was impressed by more than his player statistics, which can be tracked on websites dedicated to popular game titles.

“Seth is enthusiastic and excited to get better,” Buchanan said. “He’s motivated to learn and get better and that will translate into his collegiate experience, as well.”

In many ways, Ho said, he is just like any other athlete practicing his skills and looking for ways to improve his game.

“I work out. You don’t really hear that from gamers often, but it helps me clear my mind,” Ho said. “Once I sit down at the computer, it’s hard to get me up. I still watch all the pro players and see how I can improve myself. If you’re not learning every day, this is not the sport for you.”

He recommends gamers interested in esports to “figure out a game that you love, not just one that is popular.”

“Find a balance in life and in gaming,” Ho said. “It hasn’t always been easy being a gamer. At times, it was kind of embarrassing. But I’m very excited, and I’m ready to work with people who are just as passionate as I am to build a team.”

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