Connor Doyle is perhaps Maine’s most trailblazing college athlete.

His scholarship recruitment last year made history at Columbia College in Missouri, and he’s ranked in the highest percentile among multiple millions of players just like him. He also was recently featured in Sports Illustrated.

Yet Doyle of Winthrop never sets foot on a field, court, diamond or rink. He attends practice in front of a computer. His team gathers in a converted soccer locker room, not to review film, but to pick which characters to use for their upcoming game.

Doyle plays “League of Legends,” an immensely popular collaborative video game, with over 100 million active players per month. Last March, Doyle was recruited to be captain of Columbia’s esports team, and he became the college’s first scholarship athlete for esports.

He is ranked in the top 0.07 percentile of the estimated 100 million monthly “League of Legends” players, making him one of the best players in the world.

“‘League of Legends’ is a five-on-five strategy [game] that also has elements of a fighting game. It has five unique positions that have different roles and responsibilities. It’s really difficult to give a succinct summary because of the sheer complexity of the game,” said Doyle.

Doyle’s team competes in different tournaments to stay sharp, but its “regular season” is the Collegiate Starleague uLoL College Series. The competition is set up by region, and Doyle’s Columbia College Cougars are ranked fourth out of 53 teams in the North and 14th nationally of 221 teams.

While tapping away at a keyboard and dragging a mouse to control an avatar isn’t as visually impressive as a fast break slam dunk from basketball star Lebron James or a towering header from soccer star Peter Crouch, it is, literally, physical in nature.

But esports — what organized video game competitions are called — are exploding in popularity. Established professional sports teams in the United States are cashing in on the budding market. In early January, the Miami Heat acquired stake in Misfits, an esports group. The Heat aren’t the first to invest, as owners of five other NBA teams have launched or invested in esports groups.

The highly competitive games spawn regional tournaments with national coverage. ESPN has covered “League of Legends” a number of times on its networks. Sports arenas, such as the Staples Center in Los Angeles, have sold out for live competitions.

All of this shows how gaming has evolved from small groups huddled around a television, passing a wired controller around to play, to one person seamlessly interacting with millions on the internet to play in real-time. Alongside this, the opportunity to simply watch other people playing video games has grown exponentially.

In 2014, Amazon purchased Twitch, a video game streaming network, for about $1 billion. The next year, Google launched YouTube Gaming to compete with Twitch. Twitch and YouTube Gaming allow gamers to broadcast themselves, accept donations and offer paid subscriptions for premium content.

Doyle said he was drawn to the game because of the importance of strategy and communications, two facets of traditional sports that he enjoyed.

“There’s a lot of analogies that I make to traditional sports,” he said. “It really does feel like a team game, we talk about what we did wrong, [and] it feels like you’re in the locker room at halftime.”

A three-sport athlete in high school, Doyle wanted to play a more conventional sport at the college level. He conditioned himself through the summer before his first year of college to try out for the soccer team at Colby College. He was cut after tryouts.

Doyle fell into a downward spiral after that. He told Sports Illustrated that after he was denied for a dual-degree engineering program, he fell into a routine of drug use and long nights of partying. During this time, he found “League of Legends.”

Doyle told Sports Illustrated that “League of Legends” “was something I could grab onto … and use … to literally pull me back up.”

When Doyle told his parents about the game and the scholarship opportunity — which is 30 percent of tuition at Columbia — he made sure to emphasize his passion and the genuine possibility of making money in the industry.

The growth of gaming as a multifaceted entertainment industry has spawned tournaments that offer multimillion dollar prizes. While winnings and salaries vary by game and sponsors, top players can earn millions.

“I had a bunch of conversations with my parents,” Doyle said. “For most parents, the important thing is to see their children happy. The first thing was sharing my passion for the game, that it wasn’t just a hobby. I showed a lot of articles to my dad about the esports market.”

Esports on college campuses

Columbia College’s esports team was founded in October 2015 after a committee was formed to decide how to capitalize on the popularity of video games. Since then, the acceptance of esports as a social, athletic and academic endeavor on college campuses has spread widely.

The business of esports is the basis of a new curriculum at Emerson College in Boston, for example. The program explains the growing markets, how to monetize yourself through live broadcasting and how to run a successful esports event.

“Our side is really looking at the business side,” said Joshua Wachs, a member of the Board of Overseers at Emerson. “Esports is way more than just some kid playing ‘Call of Duty,’ there’s really a lot more to that with understanding the business in a multibillion dollar industry.”

With the financial growth and technology change that is imminent in gaming, Spencer Kimball, senior scholar in residence at Emerson, emphasized the college’s need to stay on top of the trends in the industry to optimize the program.

“We are in the beginning stages of esports, and that curriculum we develop today would be obsolete tomorrow, so it’s very important that we’re looking at what’s next,” Kimball said.

Bradley Congelio, an associate professor of sports management at Keystone College, said successful collegiate esports do not have to be about giving out scholarships but could emphasize the games’ social interaction instead.

“Even if the children aren’t going on a scholarship, if the university has a club team, students want to be able to come in and immediately have this social network of likeminded friends,” Congelio said. “Scholarship indicates, quite easily, that that increases retention rate and satisfaction in the long run. It’s about higher education using esports to their advantage.”

In Maine, collegiate esports teams are few. The University of Maine at Farmington’s club team has 15 members. They also compete in a lower division in the Collegiate Star League — in which Doyle plays — in “League of Legends.”

Patrick McDonald, student organizer of the group, said they plan to compete in the uLoL College series next year.

McDonald thinks the outlook of the industry is positive, but in Maine, esports could have some trouble catching on.

“In Maine, I’m not sure legitimate professional esports will get a lot of traction,” McDonald said in a Facebook message. “However, if we take steps to increase the locations, such as PC cafes and things like that, I believe it could get better.”

Doyle thinks people are genuinely interested in esports, even though he’s met some people who don’t see esports in the same light that they see traditional sports.

“I think the majority of people who don’t know anything about it are very inquisitive. I’ll get bombarded from six, seven, eight questions about the game. I think people are very interested.” Doyle said.

While it may seem less rigorous than a traditional sport, esports athletes need long hours of practice to compete at the highest level. Aside from drilling in-game skills, they train in the gym once per week because long hours of sitting down can do a toll on your core muscles.

“I train from noon to 4 [p.m.], working on individual skills, and then from 4 to 6 [p.m.] we’ll have a practice, very much things you would do in traditional sports,” Doyle said. “Then I’ll practice for three more hours. I’ll train anywhere from [six to eight] hours a day.”

Doyle said that being a college athlete is almost as he thought it would be.

“It’s honestly a lot more work. Other than that, it’s everything I expected and hoped it would be,” Doyle said. “When you think about it romantically, you don’t see the 10-hour days and going to home and doing your differential equations homework.”

Congelio at Keystone believes there are a few hurdles in that esports will have to jump before becoming universally accepted by the public. He said that media coverage and colleges starting programs could play a big role.

“I don’t know if it will ever be as understood as playing Pop Warner football,” Congelio said. “Right now it’s going to take time, it’s going to take the mass media, [and] the more people read and see about it, the more likely it will be seen favorably as an option for higher education.”