Esports is growing rapidly in participation, popularity and pay. With 60 collegiate varsity programs and an expected global revenue over $1 billion dollars at the professional level, Esports is quickly becoming one of the biggest competitive sports in the world. Assistant Sports editor Jason Maikis will be exploring the growth of Esports in a two-part series. This week: UCLA Esports team.
The total prize money at stake at The International – a Dota 2 Esports tournament – is more than the total prize money awarded to NBA playoff teams.
And the winner will win more than the NBA Finals and Super Bowl winning teams combined.
Over $15 million will be awarded to the winner and upwards of $33 million will be given to 18 teams when the last match wraps up Sunday.
But rather than throw down thunderous dunks or leap for spectacular catches, the athletes at The International are tapping away on keyboards and watching monitors as Dota 2 – a five-on-five, multiplayer online battle arena video game – flashes across their screens.
And while former UCLA student Harrison “Psalm” Chang may have caught a glimpse of that fame and fortune when he was the runner-up at the Fortnite World Cup Finals solo division, not every gamer does.
Many more gamers look like Noah Cook. The UCLA rising sophomore, who plays the support position for UCLA’s varsity League of Legends team, came to Westwood looking to take his gaming career to the next level.
“(Esports) were definitely something I considered in my college search,” Cook said. “I came to UCLA partially because they’re so closely located to the Riot Games Headquarters (located in West LA). And I was excited to be a part of the Esports program in its infancy.”
After Cook had made his college decision over a year ago, UCLA decided to include collegiate Esports under UCLA Recreation and Club Sports on July 5, 2018. In its first year, UCLA Esports fielded four varsity teams for League of Legends, Overwatch, Dota 2 and Hearthstone.
One of the first things the club had to do was build its infrastructure, said League of Legends coach Richard Trifoglio.
“This year a lot of our set-up was based on student resources,” Trifoglio said. “We didn’t have a set place to practice this past year, and some of our coaches were growing into new roles, but we still put together a great season.”
Trifoglio was a former player for a professional team and coached some at the amateur level before joining UCLA. He said he learned a lot of valuable info this year as his team began competing with other schools.
“I went down to (Arizona State) to look at what they had done for their team,” Trifoglio said. “They said there was a big issue with burnout and student-athlete performance dropping around midterms and finals, so that’s something we’ve already worked to address.”
The League of Legends team finished its 2019 season 4-2, losing to longer established programs at UC Irvine and UC San Diego, the former of which started giving out Esports scholarships as early as 2016.
Gaming has become an official sport at every level, including for amateurs and online players still in grade school and high school. Cook said online and amateur connections created matches this year in which the athletes would be able to compete against the same players they’ve played against for years, but on an even bigger stage.
“I know some people from other teams from playing them in amateur leagues and online,” Cook said. “But I had never met them in person. So when we hosted tournaments and playoffs to face off with those other teams, it was cool to put a name to the face.”
These student-athletes were doing more than just making friends in their college seasons, however. Just like the football and basketball players donning UCLA blue and gold on Saturdays, Esports athletes have dreams of breaking onto the professional scene.
“One thing we all try to do is get exposure with professional teams,” Cook said. “Competing at collegiate tournaments or streaming and getting exposure on Twitch (a live video streaming app) helps. It’s a tricky thing to do because it is a bit uncharted territory – going from college, amateur or academy, but you work to get noticed and get to the next level.”
Although it has been around for just over 13 months, UCLA Esports has been quick to form partnerships with different organizations in the Esports industry. Riot Games is a regular sponsor of UCLA’s collegiate tournaments, and a local professional team – the Los Angeles Valiant – recently hosted an Overwatch tournament for collegiate teams to gain more exposure and raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
After receiving the No. 4 seed at the tournament, UCLA’s Overwatch team lost a best-of-five match 3-2 to California State Fullerton. Despite the result, it’s the experience and connection with a professional team that will leave a lasting impact on the team, said junior DPS Stanley Cascone.
“We have a great relationship with the Valiant,” Cascone said. “As a player, seeing those kinds of connections is invaluable. Seeing the large scale of these events and all the parts that go into putting together professional Esports tournaments, if that doesn’t make someone want to be professional involved with Esports I don’t know what will.”
Trifoglio said those kinds of chances are important for college players to learn how to perform as a pro with multiple coaches, watching film and growing both their solo and team skills.
“A lot of it is pretty similar to other, more common sports,” Trifoglio said. “We have strategy and film-watching sessions for ourselves and opponents. You have to learn how to practice every day to keep getting better without injuries. I hurt my wrist when I played professionally and didn’t take care of it properly.”
Esports at the professional and collegiate level has a lot in common with sports that are more familiar to traditional fans. There are injuries, predetermined strategies and countless hours spent on the practice screen or in the classroom.
“You have to put in multiple hours of solo practice every day,” Cascone said. “For our varsity team, each person has to keep a certain rank. We all obviously have to go to classes too, so it’s not just something on the side, it’s a big part of our day.”
By making connections with the professional industry and figuring out their way through the budding collegiate Esports scene, Cook said UCLA Esports is ready to ride a huge wave of popularity and it has every intention of making a splash.
“Now that we’re defined as a club and we’re working on the infrastructure, we have to make our brand a little bit more well-known so we can play more like the professionals.”