Justin Choi’s competition and practice facilities at University of California Irvine are state of the art. The public university recently attracted sponsors to spend $250,000 on a brand new “arena” that features dozens of high-end desktop computers and a dedicated space.
Like other students at the UCI who might be exceptional football players or volleyball champions, Choi’s university supports him with a partial scholarship that rewards his particular gift: hardcore gaming.
“eSports,” or tournament-based competitions that pit teams of keyboard-warriors against each other, has recently become a billion-dollar industry—and its promoters are forging relationships with America’s education system.
The trend toward formal recognition of video gaming as a college “sport” has its potential drawbacks, according to some. There are concerns about the health impact of the heavy-duty commitment players make, the effect on the education system’s academic mission, and lingering questions about the competitive gaming community’s attitude towards women.
Despite opposition in some quarters, the rise of eSports on campus has been unabated since Robert Morris University in Illinois was the first to add eSports to its varsity program in the fall of 2014.
Mark Deppe, UC Irvine’s eSports program director, will oversee a $750,000 budget, all of which is raised from sponsors and selling access to the school’s new arena.
“Tenacity, critical thinking, teamwork, communication skills, and a constant desire to get better at what you are doing,” are among the traits his gamers, like Choi, exhibit on a daily basis, he said.
Deppe called the university-sanctioned eSports program, which is in its first year, an “authentic, natural fit” for the school that has a huge gaming community and a popular computer-game science major.
Michael Young, a cognitive and educational psychologist and an expert on gaming and education at the University of Connecticut, takes a more dispassionate view of the trend.
While he agrees that competitive or even casual gaming can have real developmental benefits of the kind that “makes for fine citizens,” Young cautioned colleges not to “run with scissors” in their rush to catch up.
Young believes schools and the industry should redouble their focus on ensuring student safety and confirming that proper incentives are in place so academics remains a top priority.
League of Legends Rising
Of the many video games used to fuel eSports competitions, League of Legends, or “League,” produced by Riot Games, is among the biggest and most successful. Other popular games include Blizzard Entertainment’s “Overwatch” and “Starcraft.”
ESPN has started broadcasting and devoting full-time reporters to covering League events for their rabid spectators, many of whom routinely pay to pack arenas to view competitions.
UC Irvine is now one of 14 schools that have started offering partial scholarships to recruit some of the best League gamers in the world; that number is expected to double by this August.
A competitive League team—some also call it “LoL”— has five players, each with a designated role. Matches typically involve two or three 30-minute to hour-long engagements where the gamers maneuver virtual avatars in a bid to defeat the opposing side.
“I believe that it should be recognized as a sport,” said Choi, a 20-year-old computer science major who was born in Los Angeles, but grew up in John’s Creek, Georgia, a northeast suburb of Atlanta.
And, as eSports hits the mainstream, Choi is positioned to become one of the game’s stars, some of whom pull in hundreds of thousands in tournament winnings and sponsorship deals per year.
Computer hardware companies, headphone makers, tournament software businesses, and even office chair suppliers invest heavily in sponsoring top gamers. The companies that make “basically, anything a player touches” are in on the action, said Deppe.
Choi, who goes by the gamer-tag “TowerofGod,” is ranked in the top 100 of 2 million North American competitive gamers.
In fact, all 11 gamers on the UC Irvine squad, who each receive about $5,700 a year in scholarships, have been ranked in the top 200. Prior to being recruited by the University, a number were former professionals or semi-professionals.
League sees tens of millions of casual players daily, and Riot Games says it has recently eclipsed 100 million internationally-registered users.
Meanwhile, the intensity in this season’s League of Legends college-level tournaments is starting to heat up.
The “Sustainable Ecosystem”
Every Monday through the end of March at 6pm EST, the Big Ten Network is streaming League of Legends matches. Every school in the conference, minus Nebraska and Penn State, is represented.
The other 200-plus college teams competing, like UC Irvine or Robert Morris, have their own tournaments that will graduate the best teams into a champion’s tournament that will conclude in April.
Riot Games generates revenue primarily through in-game purchases, which it says do not materially affect the outcome of competition matches. The West Los Angeles-based company declined to comment on the financial nature of its broadcasting arrangements with ESPN or the Big Ten Network.
Michael Sherman, Riot Games’ collegiate E-sports manager, said that the game’s meteoric rise in popularity, and the creation of university clubs and formal programs, has been driven by organic grassroots enthusiasm.
Sherman sees Riot Games’ role in the collegiate tournaments as being limited to building the platform, or “a sustainable ecosystem,” for league-play, encouraging schools and clubs to participate, and, more ambitiously, getting the mainstream to “think about League of Legends as a global sport.”
Once they are committed, said Sherman, it is “up to the university to decide what resources to allocate,” be it in the form of coaches, scholarships, organized practices, or new facilities. At UC Irvine, the administration opted for all of the above.
Though the school’s big eSports budget sets it apart from many of its peers, in recent years the team has failed to capture the elusive North American collegiate title.
For the past two seasons, that laurel has been bestowed on the University of British Columbia, an eSports powerhouse, which unlike UC Irvine, fields a club team that does not offer paid scholarships—though last year, each of the five members of the winning team were awarded $30,000 in scholarships by Riot Games.
Now that they are armed with the school’s backing, Choi and his teammates are not interested in coming in second place. He said his team feels a “big drive to win the whole thing.”
Like a varsity basketball team vying for an NCAA championship, serious performance in competition means a serious time investment in team practices and personal skills.
The UC Irvine team meets four times per week for three-hour practices. Choi estimates he spends an additional twelve hours a week playing online on his own.
Serious teams, like UC Irvine’s, do not simply scrimmage in practice, they also collect huge amounts of data from their games, they watch film, and they game-plan for upcoming matchups.
“Last quarter was difficult” for managing his eSports and academic schedule, said Choi.
While he and his team consider themselves to be students first, and the eSports pro who coaches the team is accommodating about players who need to miss practice for academics, Choi said that many players try to craft the “least time-consuming schedule possible” during competition season. They do so because they “want to focus on League,” he said.
Young, the UConn professor and educational gaming expert, is concerned that the financial incentives for schools to build strong eSports programs could have a “pernicious” effect on their priorities.
“Athletic directors see dollar signs,” he said, and he worries the rise of eSports can have a similar effect to the way that some big-time college football programs have pit athletic departments against educators.
In addition to the time commitments asked of the college-level student athletes, Young worries about the “trickle-down” effects on high schools.
League of Legends clubs, as well as eSports groups focused on other games, have already proliferated in hundreds, if not thousands, of school districts around the country.
As soon as word gets out that there are significant higher education scholarships available “high schools will want to position themselves to get their kids into schools,” he said.
300 Actions Per Minute
One of the key data sets that eSports gamers reference is the measure of their “Actions Per Minute,” or APM.
During competition, the best players move at furious speeds. Many have memorized a complex script of actions and possible orders.
They click constantly to maneuver to the correct position and jam in keyboard shortcuts to cast the right combinations of virtual spells.
A standard competitive eSports player averages about 300 APMs, said Jeff Haynes, the senior video games editor for Common Sense Media. The best players reach into the 400’s or 500’s for some games, he said, while the average recreational gamer playing a friendly match might have an APM of about 150.
Because of the memorization and rapid-fire decision-making involved, Haynes said he considers top-echelon League play to be a sport.
This recognition of League players as athletes from Common Sense Media, a San Francisco based nonprofit and advocacy group, is significant. Historically, Common Sense Media had been a leading watchdog on the effects of heavy doses of screen-time and virtual violence on young people.
Under Haynes, Common Sense has slowly begun to soften its stance on video-game play, and now puts a stronger emphasis on moderation and responsible participation, rather than prohibition.
The mental and physical strain of performing so many APMs can have serious health effects. Long-time gamers can fall victim to repetitive stress injuries like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and many are at risk of mental burnout, he said.
While Choi estimates he spends about 25 hours a week gaming, Haynes said it is common for some players to spend 16 to 20 hours per day competing.
Gamers have been known to pound energy drinks to stay alert during marathon multi-day sessions, in some instances with fatal consequences. Colleges and universities have also already been contending with prescription “study drug” abuse that students take to stay wired.
Young and Haynes both believe that eSports competitions should be better regulated to ensure gamers don’t overdo their training and are prevented from abusing substances to get an edge.
Gamers, coaches, university administrators, and tournament organizers have to work together to make sure players “are not destroying their bodies in the long term, for the short term,” said Young.
But the pressure on gamers to win tournaments and pack their bank accounts is intense—particularly because the peak of a top gamer’s career is often short.
“25 is considered ancient,” said Haynes, who estimates that professional players only have a handful of years to cash in on their talents.
Riot Games declined to comment on any safety measures it takes during competition play, or whether it has a performance enhancing drug protocol.
The Gender Divide in eSports
The hyper-competitiveness and results-oriented nature of eSports has built a highly insular culture among some top-performing teams.
The professional League of Legends community revolves around Santa Monica Calif., where Riot Games is headquartered.
Top teams are often composed of young men who train, eat, sleep, and live together.
The perception among some that the video gaming community is an exclusive all boys club was crystallized in 2014 when the “Gamergate” controversy erupted, and a slew of media coverage of sexism in gaming followed.
The eSports officials at UC Irvine are not indifferent to the problem. The eSports program promotes gender equality and recently hosted a panel on “Women in Gaming.”
In Choi’s anecdotal experience competing collegiately in League tournaments, however, there are few women who play at a high level.
He said that it is “well accepted” in the competitive League community “that men are inherently better at League of Legends, specifically.”
Choi said he believes that women tend to play too defensively. He said that the best League teams are those that take aggressive and decisive actions.
InsideSources followed up with UC Irvine’s eSports program for reaction to Choi’s quote. The group issued the following statement via email: “It’s no surprise that there is a perception that men are better than women given that men make the the vast majority of top eSports teams. With research to back us up, at UCI we know that with equal opportunity and training people of all genders can compete in video games at an equal level. We are striving to provide the opportunities and role models for underrepresented groups to succeed in eSports.”
Riot Games declined comment on Choi’s comments besides saying his position contradicts their experience with UC Irvine’s gamers and administration. The company also highlighted the program’s recent panel and the associated outreach to female gamers.
After reflecting on his words, Choi drafted an email to add more context to his comments.
Choi wrote that he regretted using the modifier “inherently” to describe the difference in League talent among gender, saying his statement was “toxic.”
In re-thinking his comments, Choi realized that his talents are rooted in having been steered toward video games as a child, and that boys and girls are often encouraged to take interest in divergent pursuits from formative periods in early childhood.
While Choi was pushed into competitive gaming by a cousin, there are women who “weren’t given an opportunity to develop these strengths as a kid and have a lot of catch up on. There are girl gamers who were given the opportunity and are very talented in other games that I haven’t heard of before.”
Haynes, of Common Sense Media, echoed the thought that the problem is not that women cannot, or do not, succeed in eSports like League, but that by-and-large they tend to prefer other types of games.
He pointed to a recent study as evidence that the public’s perception of who plays video games is “out of whack.” Nationally, 56 percent of gamers are female, and the average gamer is over the age of 35, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The ESA also recently released a report that included findings on the rise of video game studies offerings on college campuses.
Women are less likely to choose player-versus-player games, said Haynes, though there are major exceptions. Furthermore, the barriers to entry for complex games can be difficult for anyone to overcome—regardless of gender.
Competitive League play is hard to break into, he said. Newcomers are routinely given unsparing grief in chat rooms, especially if they hurt their team’s chances of winning.
But, there are elements in the community, conceded Haynes, who are susceptible to “the lesser angels of our nature,” in their treatment of gender equality.
Amidst controversy and growing pains, eSports continues its rise.
Haynes guesses that the billion-dollar estimates of the industry’s size are low, particularly when broadcasting, hardware purchases, and throngs of ticket buyers are counted.
Small and large colleges nationally are getting in on the action and using eSports to brand themselves in an effort to engage the next generation of young coders and mathematicians.
Young believes eSports is here to stay, and if schools can get with the program, they can use games to teach students everything from basic Newtonian physics to cooperation and teamwork.
Meanwhile, for Choi and his teammates, months of practice and sacrifice will be put to the test in the coming weeks.
They will have to communicate constantly, trust one another, and make critical snap decisions.
Working together is the key to a strong League of Legends team, said Haynes. Fail to cooperate and “you will die, and you will lose.”