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.

Esports Lab Spotlight: Craig G. Anderson


by | May 1, 2019, 11:00AM PDT

This is part 2 of a mini-series on the UCI Esports Lab and their research topics.

This article features Craig G. Anderson, a doctoral candidate at the Esports Lab. His research topics focus on the cognitive influences of games, including the roles of failure and persistence in gaming. More information, including contact information, can be found at https://www.uciesportslab.org/.

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

I’ve been working with Profs. Constance Steinkuehler and Kurt Squire for about five years;  we started in Madison, Wisconsin where we were initially researching educational games. It wasn’t until we moved to Irvine when our research started to change gears toward esports. I still study single player commercial games, but I can now start looking at the area of multiplayer competitive environments as well.

What questions are you looking to answer through your research?

My masters work was on “what makes video games engaging.” To that end, I made a low-fidelity version of Peggle and had people play it to find out if they still enjoyed playing and if they learned the core skills about the game (they only played half as much, and reported less engagement). There’s something about having success just out of reach that keeps players coming.  I then started to think about how failure is so common in games, and how games construct failure as something expected. I’m interested in looking at games like Dark Souls and Cuphead, notoriously difficult games that have a huge fanbase. Do playing these types change the way we think about failure, both in and outside of the game as well?

Today, my research focuses on how players react to failure in games. I come from a psychology background, so I’m interested in how video games make people think, and especially how they frame failure in comparison to other environments. One reason why esports is so interesting is because there are teammates that are relying on you to succeed with them as well — any failure can affect the whole team. Another interesting aspect as well is the spectators; do players react to failure differently when people are watching? If so, how?  

I am currently looking to watch testers play Cuphead and try to map the places where players are most likely to fail. I’m particularly interested in seeing if they persist, and also the reorientation strategies they use. What’s difficult about this is that the methodology hasn’t been done before. Researchers usually just survey their testers about their experiences, but I plan to actually observe the testers play the game. How long do players persist through failure? How many times do they fail, and how do they react to those failures? How many times do they try before they give up?

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

The lab was designed on purpose to encourage open, constant collaboration. Everyone talks across the table and gets the chance to collaborate with others on topics they find interesting. There are all kinds of people that work in the lab, from professors to graduate students, and even undergraduate and high school interns.

Outside the lab, our biggest project is NASEF, the high school esports league that also facilitates academic research. We work with the high school players to get gameplay footage that we might be able to refer to in our research, such as League of Legends mid lane players.

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

I am the co-chair for UCI’s Esports Conference (ESC). It was a huge amount of work, especially since ESC 2018 was the first-ever instance of it. The team spent a whole year planning the whole event, but it paid off! I’m happy that many people enjoyed it and want to go again next year, so even now we’re working on ESC 2019.

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

As esports becomes more mainstream, I see it growing in popularity until it is on par with regular, traditional sports. Similarly, esports research will continue to grow, especially at UCI where the Informatics department and games studies is growing. I want to see UCI become the premier game studies university. Before Profs. Steinkuehler and Squire came, there were only three or four professors in the department studying anything games-related. Now that there are a lot of big names doing research here, the school is now attracting more and more games scholars.