On Thursday, October 11th, and Friday, October 12th, 2018, UC Irvine’s Student Center hosted UC Irvine Esports Conference (UCIESC), where games industry experts, esports professionals, and university esports representatives gathered to discuss the rapidly growing phenomenon of video game competition.
UCI students got the opportunity to experience part MOBA, part beat-’em-up Hyper Universe inside the UCI Esports Arena.
UCI is the first public university to form a collegiate esports program. As such, the campus’s UCI Esports Arena, which first opened in September of 2016, was both the subject of many panels and host to many of the conference’s festivities. Exhibition matches for Nintendo’s premiere platform fighter, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, were held and streamed outside the Arena. The up-and-coming Korean mobile game Destiny Child also hosted a cosplay contest on the outdoor stage. Inside the arena, veteran players and UCI students got to experience Hyper Universe, a new game for PC and Xbox One that revamps the popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre so prominent in modern esports such as League of Legends. Hyper Universe adds a twist to the genre by pitting the characters against each other in two-dimensional sidescroller combat, invoking the gameplay of arcade beat-’em-ups like Streets of Rage.
Exhibition matches and tournaments were also held for several esports games: Blizzard’s online trading card game Hearthstone, Overwatch matches between Overwatch League team LA Valiant and UCI’s own collegiate team, and of course, League of Legends. UCI’s collegiate League team were presented with twenty-two championship rings at an awards ceremony held outside of the UCI Esports Arena, commemorating their win at the 2018 League of Legends College Championships.
The Emerald Bay and Crescent Room conference rooms of the Student Center also hosted various talks and panels on the state of esports. These discussions focused on the culture of esports both in and out of the game, as well as its budding relationship with universities. Panelists and speakers discussed how esports interacts with the student body, collegiate teams and staff, college bureaucracy and academia, esports education, and the organizations that allow each of these facets to exist and grow. Graduate student research from several universities with esports programs of their own was also displayed in the Student Center.
UCIESC attendees at Michael Sherman and Adam Rosen’s talk, “Esports history and the development of esports as a cultural practice.”
A very common subject of different panels was the ecosystem on campus which allows both casual students and players on collegiate teams to perform and thrive. Riot Games’ Michael Sherman and Team Tespa’s Adam Rosen gave a talk on how Tespa and similar campus support programs could help by organizing clubs, leagues, and providing the space and equipment to play. Another important recurring topic at the conference was inclusivity and diversity in esports- that is, promoting the presence of women and other marginalized groups in games while also reducing toxicity, harassment, and gatekeeping. Morgan Romine of AnyKey, Eunice Chen from Cloud9, and Leena Xu of Team Solomid hosted a panel that called for alternative paths to becoming a pro player that would allow those with fewer opportunities to ‘go pro’ and play on the same stage as everyone else. The panelists also discussed the role women already play in different areas of the esports industry besides pro play, such as marketing, recruitment, and other behind-the-scenes work.
Aguilar’s research was just one of many pieces of university esports studies on display. (research by Stephen J. Aguilar, Ph.D)
Meanwhile, a piece of research by Stephen Aguilar, Ph.D., of USC Rossier, titled “Examining Players’ Sense-Making of Representation, Gender, and Race(ism) in Overwatch,” honed its lens on a particular part of the competitive gaming community- in this case, the Overwatch subreddits. Aguilar’s research was concerned with how this demographic responded to discussions regarding sensitive, controversial issues, and bigotry towards other players and members of the community.
Other conversations were about how esports has developed in universities and predicting the future of where it would go, as research becomes reputable and the reputation of games as pro sports becomes mainstream. Drs. Seth Jenny, Peggy Keiper, Joey Gawrysiak, and R. Douglas Manning, all representing different universities with budding esports programs, discussed the proliferation of esports with regards to sports science, higher education, esports law, and branding.
The panels and research topics discussed at the UCI Esports Conference all raised important questions: What was being done to curb toxic culture in-game? Would collegiate esports programs make themselves affordable and accessible to community colleges or lower-income schools? How do we navigate university bureaucracy and colleagues who dismiss esports and video game research as having little value? How do we convince these same individuals that providing funding, space, equipment, etcetera, is worth it? Some of these questions had multiple, complex solutions, while others, due to the nature of esports as a new, rapidly booming field, didn’t even have answers yet. For instance, when discussing toxic behavior, steps like monitoring voice and text chats and doling out suspensions for offensive players are already in place. However, when it came to dealing with college bureaucracy, it was clear that even some of the professional speakers still faced adversity in that respect. Ultimately, the conference brought together people from many different parts of the competitive gaming industry to begin a dialogue and find solutions to these problems, in order for esports to become an important, reputable, and fun community, both for universities and the rest of the world.
Article and photos by Nathan Dhami