A Look into UCI Esports’ Annual Summer Overwatch Bootcamp


by | Aug 26, 2019, 12:00PM PDT

True to our mission of providing professional support for young gamers looking to break into the world of esports, UCI Esports recently welcomed 16 high school gamers to our second annual Overwatch summer bootcamp for a week of high-octane, no-holds-barred training.

From June 30th to July 6th, participants worked under the guidance of coaches Ronald Ly and Michael Kuhns to hone their skills in teamwork, communication, and—of course—Overwatch.

Supporting Ly and Kuhns were Brenden Alvarez and Zuhair Taleb, previous members of UCI’s scholarship Overwatch team. Both students acted as junior coaches and mentors to campers seeking, perhaps, to attend UCI in future years as scholarship players themselves.

“The experience was honestly pretty unforgettable,” says Alvarez, a Computer Science major and flex tank on the scholarship team. “Watching the players improve so rapidly within the scrim session felt really satisfying … the campers were all super passionate as well, and I think I found that to be really inspiring, which motivated me to work as hard as I could for them so that they could achieve their goals.”

Alvarez, Ly, and a team of dedicated staff provided campers one-on-one coaching to help them optimize their gameplay.

Although I wasn’t around to view the training sessions in person, Coach Ly was gracious enough to regale me with a snapshot of his experience as a first-time mentor for the students in attendance this year. Following is our interview, conducted online.


What were your general impressions about this year’s camp?

Being my first year running the camp, I came in with the goal to make sure that every camper walked away being able to say that they’ve been greatly armed for future competition and created fond, lifelong memories spending their week here at UCI Esports. I firmly believe we’ve managed to accomplish that, and I’m so proud—and relieved—that the campers earnestly enjoyed their time with us.

Honestly, it nearly brought a tear to my eye to see the power of video games used to cultivate close community and future competitors.

What parts of the week did you enjoy most?

For me, I enjoyed seeing the growth happen daily. It invigorates the fire within myself and my team to see these young athletes level-up in real time, loud and proud about their passion both in game and out.

How did this year’s schedule and events differ from previous years? Do you believe these changes contributed positively to the camp’s success?

I believe a large reason this year was so successful was that we implemented a daily goal with an accompanying lesson for the campers to focus on every day. There was always a tall task ahead of them, and every day the were challenged to meet those expectations, and carry them over to the next. We didn’t make it easy, we really made sure that our big ideas would be difficult to dent, and really played to the gamer’s nature of fighting challenges head on. I think the campers really enjoyed us pushing them to fight for these accomplishments, helping them along the way, but letting them work together to meet their goals and make their teammates friends along the way.

Campers prepped for an afternoon of scrims with light exercise.

In your opinion, what’s the main purpose of the Overwatch Bootcamp? What skills do campers develop during their time in the program?

The primary purpose of the camp is to equip our attendees with valuable, measurable, and transferable skills that they can take with them wherever they go.

All of the players at the camp had a competitive drive to play and improve, and that was a big focal point for us—we wanted to make sure they were learning about how to better play the game itself, but also to give them personal skills apart from the game that contribute to their success both in the virtual world and their future careers.

How do you and the other coaches accommodate campers’ varying levels of skill in the game?

Both I and my assistant coach, Michael Kuhns, worked plenty of long nights to create a curriculum that accommodates players at all levels. We decided that our lesson plans should be focused on high-end fundamentals that all of our campers will be able to work towards. Many of these players have strong mechanical ability, or some light team experience, and many others had little or none. What we looked to do was make sure that the topics we were talking about focused on both theory and pragmatic exercises that you wouldn’t be able to work on unless you attended our camp specifically.

All of the players at the camp knew that communication was vital to success. But that’s a vague statement that leads to many questions—and we looked to answer those. What does good communication sound like? Who is responsible for saying what? When should and shouldn’t I be speaking up? How should be communicating exactly? All of the campers learned what bad communication sounded like, all of them worked on their own communication skills to make them better. Things like tone, volume, and repetition, clarity, succinctness—all of our campers needed to work on that regardless if they were a “Gold” player or a “Grandmaster” player.

Campers exercised their communication skills to complete projects both ingame and out.

Did all the teams formed this year seem to work well together? Were there any major hurdles the players had to overcome as a team?

The campers all got along very well. It was evident as the days rolled by that they made good friends with one another, and that the daily activities and practices had ushered them closer together. The hurdles that the players had to overcome were intentional ones that the coaches had put into place to better round out all of our campers skillsets, and build on their understanding of the game and how to work as a team. We aimed to further polish their more outstanding capabilities, but also put them in a place where they weren’t able to hide from their shortcomings.

We opted to create two teams this year and implement a mandatory substitution rule. Many of our campers were stuck in their comfort zones—locked in the bubbles of their specific roles—and we wanted to give them a semblance of the experience that a professional player has. We made sure they had to work with others, work to solve problems together, be willing to bend and compromise together, strategize to their unique strengths, and compensate for their unique weaknesses.

We had one team that was highly versatile, but less experienced and polished on any given specific team composition. On the other, we had one that was highly specialized and very potent in one composition, but very lackluster when playing others or being forced to shift outside of their comfort picks.

Over the course of the week, we saw one team gain an edge one day, and the other bring it back the next. One day Team A would have the advantage, and then a major turnaround for Turn B would happen the day after. By the end of the week, both teams were extremely competitive, way stronger, and much tighter-knit—it couldn’t have turned out better for us.

What was the most meaningful interaction you had with the group?

The most meaningful interaction with the campers for me was the ending of the finals of our tournament on the last day. It came down to the wire, and I could see the fruits of their labor plain as day. The match came down the wire, really, and the words of thanks and gratitude to the staff and coaches—as well as the kind words shared between opposing teams—was extremely heartwarming.

Did the players teach you anything (about the game, or more generally)?

The players provide insights and reasoning to their thinking in ways that our staff may not have considered before. Good or bad, the sharing of these ideas and the thought-process behind certain decisions made in the game is something you can only expand your knowledge of from interacting with others. I’ve seen certain campers here utilizing their abilities and characters in ways that I hadn’t considered effective prior, but would be forced to meet my own biases and opinions, and inform my own view of the game.

Campers and camp staff exchanged ideas regularly—here, Coach Ly advises a group about their progress on a team-based project.

Looking ahead, what more would you like to see included in UCI Esports’ summer programs?

Looking ahead, I would love to continue growing our curriculum. There’s a lot of what I teach that I believe could be invaluable insights to coaches and players of various other titles. There’s a lot of overlap and transferable fundamental skills that you can carry over into different games, even different genres. What we focus on in the UCI Esports program is building up our players as people first and foremost, and it’s this foundational focus that sets us apart from the competition.

I would love to get more campers in and continue to explore what we can accomplish as the camp attendants become more diverse in skill, age, gender, race, and creed. I believe everyone has something to offer and teach others—I want to fill our arena, build another, and fill that one up too! Honestly, I learn as much from these campers as they do from me and my extraordinary staff. I’d personally love to do this more than just once a year.

The interview concluded with several corroborating remarks from Assistant Coach Kuhns, who witnessed the campers’ growth as both players and people alongside Ly.

“Many of the players that attended the camp have a lot of potential to do great things in Overwatch or competitive games in general,” he said. “It was a special treat being able to work with campers that always had a positive attitude and worked to lift their teammates up, whether they were celebrating in wins or encouraging in losses.”

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.