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College Esports Programs Are Growing, But Can They Field a Winning Team?

College Esports Programs Are Growing, But Can They Field a Winning Team?

Colleges are starting to take esports programs seriously. Did it have an effect on the results at this year's Heroes of the Dorm tournament? Blizzard Entertainment

The rise of collegiate esports is a sign of the ongoing "normalization" of pro gaming

The rise of collegiate esports is a sign of the ongoing "normalization" of pro gaming

The doors to University of Nevada Las Vegas’ Cox Arena and Pavilion open at 12, and every seat inside is filled by 12:30. It smells like popcorn and beer. At least half the audience are wearing university sweatshirts; most bear the logo of University of California, Irvine, though others are sporting everything from my own University of North Carolina to University of Southern California. If it weren't for the occasional StarCraft cosplayer or the elaborate apparatus of club lighting enveloping the stage, you could be forgiven for mistaking Heroes of the Dorm for a division one basketball game.

That's the point, of course. Heroes of the Dorm, a yearly competition between the best college Heroes of the Storm teams in the country, is Blizzard Entertainment's answer to NCAA's March Madness (it's no coincidence that the two tournaments run almost concurrently). After several weeks of matches in a single elimination, 64 team bracket, Blizzard has invited the tournament’s "Heroic Four" – UC Irvine, University of Kentucky, Louisiana State University, and University of Texas at Arlington – to compete in person for the tournament’s grand prize. Unlike March Madness, these teams are competing for a tangible prize: Blizzard will cover all of the winning players’ tuition for the remainder of their college careers.

It’s a feel-good event, and Heroes of the Dorm carefully adopts many of the most iconic conventions of collegiate sports, but adjusts them to fit the contours of esports. In between games, the large projection screen above the stage broadcasts live video of beaming parents (a group of whom from LSU, decked out in the schools bright purple and yellow color scheme, were the first people in line on the morning of the tournament); mascots toss shirts into the crowd; the press pack the media is given lists each player's major, which is also included in every introductory graphic. These players are college students, and Heroes of the Dorm won’t let you forget it.

"I was doing my homework before this interview," says one player in a pre-tournament press conference to the amusement of everyone in attendance.

Though collegiate esports doesn't get the same attention as its older, professional sibling, the scene has been quietly blossoming over the last few years. A small but growing number of colleges have taken note of esports' popularity on college campuses and have started to offer material support for collegiate esports in the form of facilities, staff, and scholarships. To date, though, no college has invested more into collegiate esports than the UC Irvine, which, in the words of its director, Mark Deppe, bills itself as the "Duke Basketball of college esports."

"UC Irvine doesn't have a football team, and we'll never be in the final four," Deppe tells me, pint of lager in hand. "So esports is how we challenge other universities and win the hearts and minds of the average American."

Collegiate esports are a meeting point between corporate and university interests. For colleges, it's a way to promote themselves as in touch with young people's passions and to build connections with a growing (and valuable) industry. "Students are coming from around the country to our school because of its gaming culture," Deppe says of UC Irvine. "Potential students often get into Berkeley or UCLA too, but now, they're choosing us."

For game developers and publishers, collegiate esports are an opportunity to market their games to a crucial demographic and – should intercollegiate gaming ever attain even a fraction of the value of college meatsports – position themselves to take a cut on the ensuing media rights. "We're as much interested in nurturing the community in addition to competitions, because we see a feedback loop between the two," says Adam Rosen, a project manager at Blizzard who leads the company's collegiate esports initiative. "Players like to play, people like to watch players playing, and competition drives a lot of dialogue, rivalries, and friendships."

More broadly, though, the rise of collegiate esports is a sign of the ongoing "normalization" of esports. As esports continue to grow in popularity, they are adapting to fit the contours of society, occupying the places – like intercollegiate competition – that were once the sole purview of meatsports.

Still, the four teams in attendance at Heroes of the Dorm – UC Irvine, UT Arlington, LSU, and Kentucky – also illustrate the unevenness with which colleges are embracing esports on campuses across the country. At one extreme, there is UC Irvine's monied program, which is backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars of sponsorship from companies like iBuyPower and Logitech. Last year, the university built a $250,000 esports arena in a dusty pool hall in the student center that doubles as an event space, broadcast studio, and LAN café to offset some of the program's costs. UC Irvine also offers scholarships for its flagship League of Legends team (though not for Heroes of the Storm; Deppe hopes to offer scholarships for other games starting next year, starting with Overwatch), and offers access to tutors and even a sports psychologist for players. Already, the program is paying dividends.

"I transferred to UCI specifically for its esports program," says Loc '"Pandasaurus" Mar, one of UC Irvine's starting Heroes players.

Unsurprisingly, UC Irvine esports' squads have become modestly popular on campus, and even students with no particular interest in gaming know about the esports program's existence. "When we finish a close set and look online, there are lots of posts from people in support of the team," says UC Irvine's Heroes captain, Ryan "proteges" Griswold, a graduate student in biotechnology. (Collegiate esports is still in its infancy, and standards for eligibility have not been codified.)

In many ways, UC Irvine's location and student body lend themselves to being a leader in collegiate esports. Computer science is by far the most popular major, and the school hosts one of the largest game design programs in the country. And for students interested in a career in the game industry, Irvine is home to several major game companies, including Blizzard itself.

Another player from LSU suggests that his grades have slipped so much from practicing up to 35 hours a week for Heroes of the Dorm that he's now at risk of losing his scholarship, and needs to win to ensure that he can pay tuition next year. 

The situation could not be more different at Kentucky, where nursing and physical education are two of the most popular majors, basketball rules the day, and esports barely register in most students' minds. (Rosen notes that esports often catch on more rapidly at schools that aren't sports powerhouses because they don't have to compete for attention with better known and better funded teams).

"Up until last week," says Kentucky's affable captain Mike "Quonzar" Dittert, with just a touch of Appalachian drawl. "I wasn't aware of any esports clubs on campus."

In response to the team's success in Heroes of the Dorm, some UK students have banded together to host a viewing party, and the team has received some recognition in the student newspaper. But even if that coalesces into a dedicated club, per university policy, it will be several semesters before it can petition for any funding from the student activities committee, let alone the university itself.

Both LSU and UT Arlington exist somewhere within the wide gap between UC Irvine and Kentucky. Both LSU and UTA have dedicated esports clubs that receive some support from the student body, but official support in the form of dedicated practice space or part time support staff is almost non-existent. "If we win, someone said we might get a banner with our picture on the school," says LSU's Austin "Hecarimj" Mollich.

There are more serious consequences to a lack of university support, though. Another player from LSU suggests that his grades have slipped so much from practicing up to 35 hours a week for Heroes of the Dorm that he's now at risk of losing his scholarship, and needs to win to ensure that he can pay tuition next year.

The degree to which esports has been institutionalized at each of these colleges shapes almost every aspect of the teams' path to the Heroes of the Dorm finals in Las Vegas. Because teams had to arrive mid-week to fulfill media obligations, players had to miss several days of classes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, every team except UC Irvine ran into difficulties selling their absence to their professors.

"My professor said [Heroes of the Dorm] 'seems cool,'" Kentucky's Dittert tells me, "but that I'm still going to get a zero for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday."

The players from LSU fared only somewhat better. "One of my professors made me go to his office hours and made me explain [Heroes of the Storm], and he let it slide," Mollich tells me. "But another one said 'I don't buy it.'"

At UC Irvine, by contrast, most of the players' professors were well aware of the schools esports, if not Heroes of the Dorm itself. Deppe notes that many faculty at UC Irvine have even incorporated esports into their research interests. But for any instructors who expressed hesitation at excusing UC Irvine's players' absences, the program drafted a letter that players could show their instructors. In the end, it wasn't necessary. "My professors just said 'good luck. Represent UCI well,'" said Cameron "blahty" Mar from UC Irvine.

Ironically, the one area that institutional support might not make much of a difference at all is in playing Heroes of the Storm itself. Despite its superior infrastructure, UC Irvine was unceremoniously eliminated in the semifinals by UT Arlington en route to their 3-0 victory over LSU in the grand finals. In fact, UT Arlington – a team with only a fraction of the resources of UC Irvine's squad – did not drop a single game the entire tournament, going 29-0 over 12 series. The team has plans to "go pro" in the next few months by attempting to qualify for Heroes Championship League, Blizzard's professional Heroes league.

In other words, practice facilities, paid support staff, and scholarships be damned – there's a democratizing element to collegiate esports that traditional meatsports have long since left behind. As much as I'd like to, it's hard to imagine Duke basketball losing to some impoverished state school that lacks access to something like Duke's army of private tutors, physical trainers, limitless recruiting power, and highly paid analysts.

And yet UC Irvine's Heroes of the Storm team was ultimately (and totally) undone by five talented dudes playing a shitton of videogames from their apartments somewhere in northeast Texas. Not that this matters too much to Irvine – Deppe notes that competition is only one pillar of the esports program, which also emphasizes research entertainment, and community. "We've honestly invested a similar amount of time and effort into each of those," says Deppe. A championship would be nice of course – "We're the last chance to try to bring home a first-place crown for the program," says Griswold in a pre-match interview – but even without a Heroes of the Dorm title, the program is a success.

The NCAA's fantasy of the student-athlete, who competes solely for the sake of competition alongside their education, has long since wilted under the harsh light of academic scandal after academic scandal. Still, the NCAA has steadfastly refused to entertain esports, in part because college esports points to a model of intercollegiate competition in which student-athletes are actually paid for their efforts (UT Arlington's team could very well earn prize money while competing in the Heroes Global Championship, in addition to the scholarship money that Heroes of the Dorm pays out).

In that way, at least for now, esports might actually be one of the last bastions of pure amateurism, unsullied by the excesses and scandals of the collegiate athletic complex. Even UT Arlington, its sights set on Heroes' professional scene, knows what its priorities are. "I'm going to bed at 8 pm," says Yusuf "Kure" Sunka, captain of UTA's championship squad when I ask them how they're planning to celebrate their victory.

"We've got three days of class to catch up on, and exams on Monday."