Esports Lab Spotlight: Maria J. Anderson-Coto


by | Feb 28, 2019, 6:00AM PDT

This is part 1 of a mini-series on the UCI Esports Lab and their research topics.

Despite the field’s rapid growth in the past few years, academic research on the subject of esports is rare. The UCI Esports Lab’s aim, according to their website, is to “understand and enrich esports” through their student research. The faculty and graduate students there focus their study on methods to optimize esports teams, and they apply their findings to educational spaces like the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF). Such research often involves how players function in teams, particularly when they need to communicate and work together.

This article focuses on Maria J. Anderson-Coto, a first-year doctorate student at the Esports Lab. Her research topics include player performance, retirement in esports, and gender inclusion. More information, including contacts, can be found at https://www.uciesportslab.org/


What led you to become involved in esports research? What is your educational background?

I came into graduate school with a background in business,. My first exposure to esports was in the form of watching the advent of the Overwatch League and reading about gamification. I quickly realized that the business teams I worked with had problems that could be solved with games, and were very similar to esports teams. Today, I play games to study them and as a social activity, so I always try to make the time I spend playing games meaningful in some way.

What questions are you looking to answer through your research?

One of my research topics is team dynamics. How do esports teams work? How do players with different abilities, roles, and languages work together so well? How do the internal and external factors, such as physical activity, social relationships and mental health influence their teamwork? I try to see these players as high-performing athletes, playing a sport that demands precise communications and interactions in a stressful environment, requiring not only the body, but the brain.

One of my current projects is on player retirement. I am trying to figure out why players are retiring early on, since the body doesn’t give out in the same way that physical athletes do. Most esports players retire at around 25 years old – why? I’m also looking into a retrospective on their professional life – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Learning why a player retires can give me further insight into how the team works as well.

In the future, I plan to research gender inclusion in esports. There’s already many papers and articles about the need for more diversity. Why aren’t they here, though? What factors are preventing true diversity from happening? Why aren’t they doing it, and how can we make it more accessible?

Who do you work with on a regular basis at the lab?

I work with my advisor, Dr. Kurt Squire, Dr. Constance Steinkuehler, and other graduate students in the Esports Lab as well as the Participatory Learning Lab. I also collaborate with Mark Deppe at the Esports Arena, who is very supportive of our research.

What is one of the most important things you’ve done in your time researching esports?

I was on the board for planning UCI ESC 2018 and because of my business background, I was in charge of acquiring marketing materials like signage, t-shirts, bags and booklets. It was particularly difficult because this was the first-ever academic esports event, so there was no existing precedent for it. Getting everything together was extremely stressful, but it was gratifying getting to work with the team outside of research.

Where do you see esports (and/or research in the area) in five years?

Esports doesn’t have a rigid, centralized structure like traditional sports, but I expect to see the field grow just like it’s currently doing now in the next five years. One particular thing I am curious to see is some sort of regulatory body emerging – or any type of regulation being created, as well as a higher standard of esports professionalism.

Why Gamers Should Read Black Authors


by | Sep 24, 2020, 7:30AM PDT

Years from now when people ask “where were you in 2020?” I will respond, “online, and I hated every second of it.”

2020 was a year filled with strife and changes, as many of the country’s issues were placed under the microscope of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were made privy to the fragility of our healthcare system, made to grapple with the mistreatment of our workers, and we saw just how little our government was ready to deal with the unseen threat of a virus. As buildings and campuses became unsafe for congregations, schools and businesses quickly transitioned from physical interaction to remote operations, trading desks for couches, and cubicles for bedrooms. As an academic I soon saw myself writing grants, hosting calls, and meeting with colleagues all through the screen of my computer. Just like that my and many other lives became mediated through digital platforms.

But then came May and the US caught fire as major cities around America erupted in protest after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on the neck of George Perry Floyd Jr. for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, killing him on camera. The act was such a clear show of police misconduct and brutality that not only did protest emerge in Minneapolis but in cities like Los Angeles and New York. People across America took to the streets to protest what was a vile and malicious act of policing and unfortunately (and ironically) were subsequently met with the very force they went out there to speak against. Agitations flared, peaceful protest turned into physical confrontation, and long-ignored anger and sorrow became the fuel for the flames which burned signs, buildings, and coincidentally an NYPD van.

Yet, still, for many, the most heated moments of the protest were not experienced in person but rather were witnessed second hand through their television or through social media online. As the protest raged on, Twitter threads became battlegrounds, YouTube videos spun narratives, and the internet yet again became the hotbed for information and dialogue around the events many were experiencing. With #BlackLivesMatter trending yet again in response to the death of ANOTHER Black person at the hands of the police, the online blurred yet again with the physical. So much so, that social media became the key place where I, a Black man, kept up with the news, contacted friends and family who were near protest areas, and was made to relive the trauma of watching Floyd lose his life again and again as it was shared on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter both as both a form of awareness and as jokes from those craven enough to mock a man posthumously. And, while I donated to BLM initiatives, honked my horn in-vehicle protest, and showed up physically where I could, I—like so many—experienced the brunt of this protest online.

So, it should not come as a surprise when I say that it was not in person or even on Twitter where I got into my harshest debates, but instead, it was within video games like Overwatch and League of Legends where I found the most abuse. In fact, it was gaming spaces like these that became the hardest to occupy during the time of the protest. In an attempt to find some semblance of peace while the world burned, I decided to turn on Overwatch (a hero first-person shooter from the company Blizzard) to try to take the edge off. After some time, I was eventually placed with 11 other players and dropped into a starting zone to wait. However, instead of the typical banter of roles and positions, I was met with a “hello my fellow African Americans, let’s go burn and loot some stores because BLACK LIVES MATTER!” from one of my teammates. Reminded that video games seldom work as escapism for black people, I contemplated whether to let the comment go or to make a scene. I chose the latter.

I responded with “do you think that’s funny?” which prompted him to say “of course! Because they should not be out there at all, because ALL LIVES MATTER!” and quickly an argument ensued. Shouting in a way I am not all too proud of, I went back and forth with the player, I shouted the names of those killed—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin—only to have him respond with conspiracies like the FBI started BLM and comments like “slavery didn’t matter.” It didn’t take long for our remaining teammates to mute us with one going as far as to exclaim, “I don’t play this for politics.” In hindsight I think I would have been better off ignoring the troll—I must admit I was perturbed, livid in fact. Livid that a player used the game as his platform for racism and livid at the apathy of the other players viewing the deaths of Black men and women as simple politics. While the game’s very company (Blizzard) was tweeting in support of Black Lives, its players continued to disparage them. With each engagement I grew colder and angrier, each bout of racism striking deeper than the last until eventually, I arrived at simply telling people to shut the… well you can finish the rest.

Unfortunately, what I experienced is nothing new, as scholars such as Kishonna Gray, Andre Brock, Anna Everett, Samantha Blackmon, TreaAndrea Russworm, and many others have written extensively on the experiences of Black players similar to my own. However, as more and more games become spaces for online interaction, I and many others are yet again forced to acknowledge that games and the many who play them are not always aware of the struggles non-white gamers may go through. But, in writing this piece and sharing my experience I do not want this to come off as an accusation of gamers and gaming practices (there are other avenues for such), but instead as an opportunity to engage with perspectives that have been ignored or overlooked.

As many of us face yet another crisis in our communities, where Black life is threatened for simply existing (under the blanket of COVID no less), it is important to remember that games, as peripheral as they may seem, work as powerful sites of cultural creation and expression. I could not escape my pain through games because the same rhetoric, behavior, and trauma that took place in the physical informed and shaped the virtual. That is why this piece is less of an accusation and simply a call to action.

In a time where Black players face constant racial abuse both inside and outside of games, I propose that gamers engage with the history of this country and the writings of Black scholars, activists, and people. In wanting to see a healthier gaming community, I have curated a list of books, short readings, and articles to read in hopes that gamers and the gaming community at large will pick up the call and accept this challenge. While by no means extensive, the list provided will offer introductory reading to familiarize oneself with Black history in the US and the Black experience in areas such as school, healthcare, and most apropos, online spaces. While seemingly unrelated, there is much to be gained by engaging with past and current writers, and only when we have an informed gaming population can we hope to see change.


Akil Fletcher grew up in New York where he received a B.A in Anthropology from the City College of New York. Currently, he is a Ph.D student in the anthropology department at the University of California Irvine, where he researches the navigation of Black video game players online. Funded by the National Science Foundation, Akil researches how Black players form and manage communities in spaces that are often hostile to Black participants.

If you would like to join in on discussing any of the readings from Akil Fletcher’s list, you are welcome to the UCI Esports Discord server‘s #book-club channel.