Aug 19 2014 - 1:17 pm

The varsity gamer: Esports go to college

Adrian Ma was only 17 years old when he graduated high school earlier this year—a full year ahead of schedule
Samuel Lingle
Dot Esports

Adrian Ma was only 17 years old when he graduated high school earlier this year—a full year ahead of schedule. The Houston native was eager to focus full time on his budding career in League of Legends, a five-on-five computer game with an increasingly lucrative professional scene.  

Ma’s team was part of the Challenger league, the amateur level just below the largest professional competition in North America and Europe, the League Championship Series. There, players compete in a weekly broadcast league and earn sizable, yearly salaries. Ma, with his significant amateur chops, was a serious contender to go pro. But he quickly realized that the gruelling professional scene, where teams need to practice eight to 12 hours a day just to keep up, was both very difficult and very risky. Leaving school early, he later admitted, was a “mistake.”

“I missed out on a lot of the things I would've done senior year," he said. "Which basically meant I had no preparation for college and beyond."

That left him in a precarious situation. How could he get into a college with a transcript filled, most recently, with League of Legends?

On July 14, a tweet from a professional League coach Ferris “AGeNt” Ganzman caught his eye.

Ma thought it was a joke at first. A college offering scholarships for a video game? But after contacting Ganzman, Ma realized it was very much real.

Robert Morris University in Illinois started handing out athletic scholarships for esports in June, and “Popstar Adrian,” as Ma goes in the game League of Legends, will be one of their first varsity players.

Competitive video gaming, or esports, is growing exponentially. Just last month, ESPN broadcasted a Dota 2 team winning nearly half of an $11 million prize pool; over 20 million people watched Chinese team Newbee become instant millionaires. But the future of esports isn’t on ESPN. It’s not in the Staples Center, which sold out for an esports event last year.

It’s on college campuses.


In 2009, some students at Princeton challenged rivals at MIT to a match of StarCraft. At the same time, a University of California San Diego student named Duran Parsi formed his own team. The two groups, who knew each other through StarCraft community website Team Liquid, decided to form a single competition, organizing matches in Google docs and Excel spreadsheets, and the Collegiate StarLeague (CSL) was born.

They weren't the only ones looking to expand the collegiate footprint of esports. About a year later, a pair of brothers at the University of Texas in Austin created a club to promote esports competition at their school, called the Texas Esports Association. And in in the Summer of 2011, a simple post on the official League of Legends spurred the formation of IvyLoL, a competitive college association for the biggest esport in the world.

Those groups laid the groundwork for what's become a rapidly growing and maturing infrastructure for competitive collegiate gaming. The Collegiate Star League featured 550 teams and over 5,600 players last season, and introduced their third game this year, adding Dota 2 to their StarCraft 2 and League of Legends competitions. TeSPA took the Texas out of its name, calling itself the eSports Association so it could focus on broader national goals. It now encompasses 700 schools and organizes college events across the nation, handing out thousands in scholarships as prizes. In 2012, TeSPA partnered with IvyLoL for Lone Star Clash 2, the first live final for a college esports tournament. 

“I don't think any of us thought this far into the future at all," Parsi, now CSL's CEO, said. "We were just doing it because it was really fun and every season kept getting bigger and bigger, which was awesome."

College sports are a gigantic business, with millions of dollars tossed to coaches and massive television contracts funding bloated athletic programs. College football is the country’s third most popular sport, ahead of NBA basketball and NHL hockey. The biggest star on ESPN these days? Johnny Manziel, the college football prodigy who has yet to play in his first professional game.

College esports may not be on that level. They may never be. The don't have a Manziel, a Jameis Winston, a Jadeveon Clowny. But they have produced a number of pro players.

StarCraft 2 prodigy Conan “Suppy” Liu helped make University of California, Berkeley the most winning team in CSL history before leaving school to sign a professional contract with Evil Geniuses. Liu was awarded the CSL Excellence in eSports Award in 2012. And then there's Alan “KiWiKiD” Nguyen, who made his name in League of Legends on the UT Austin team, which helped earn him a spot on pro team Dignitas.

Most esports scenes are very top-heavy. This year's edition of The International, the biggest Dota 2 tournament in the world, featured nearly $11 million in prize money. But only 2 percent of that went to teams outside the top eight of the tournament. Only a select elite few earn enough money to make a living, leaving amateur and semi-pro players struggling to make ends meet while finding the time to build a career.

That problem also extends to the tournaments themselves. There’s little incentive to host events that don’t include the upper echelon of players, considering they attract the most viewership and advertising dollars. “Sometimes the pro scene is de-motivating, since the barrier to entry is so high,” Parsi explains. It’s tough for an amateur to break into a scene against professionals practicing 12 hours a day, he notes, with no clear path to build your talent to that level, and no way to compete against your peers.

College esports provide the perfect platform to change that, a structured environment where teams and players meet not just to battle over exorbitant prize purses, but for school pride. And if you realize the pro gaming life isn’t for you, like Ma, you have a safety net: a degree.

That’s one of the things that makes college esports so exciting. For over a decade, the industry has struggled to provide an adequate structure to support amateur players. The grassroots initiatives spawned on college campuses over the past four years have done just that. The Collegiate Star League and IvyLoL both grew from the same idea: Wouldn’t it be fun if we could compete against other nearby schools at the games we love?

The challenge now is combining the massive growth of the student-initiated and student-run esports programs with increasing involvement from the official side of things. Robert Morris University may be the first university to institute esports scholarships, but it likely won’t be the last.

The North American Collegiate Championship (NACC), the biggest college competition around, already shows that kind of collaboration is possible. Organized by the developer of League of Legends itself, Riot Games, in conjunction with CSL and IvyLoL, it handed out $100,000 in scholarships for the finale in February. University of Washington beat San Jose State University to win the championship.

NACC is likely just the start of increased attention on the growing collegiate scene. IvyLoL president Trey Sweeney calls developer and university involvement “crucial” to the future of college esports, and he believes it doesn’t have to come at the cost of existing communities. “We can stay true to our roots of respecting our player base while continuing to scale up and provide a great service,” he said.

Taking college esports to the next level, however, will require money that student-run organizations just don’t have. While IvyLoL and CSL have both managed to host live finals in conjunction with other esports events over the past two years, that’s just a small start to bringing college esports out of the dorm room and computer lab and into a more sporting environment.

Parsi believes more official school involvement is inevitable, whether it’s officially recognizing esports groups as club sports or adding esports to the athletics program like Robert Morris University.

“I hope that we get to a point where the schools are fronting costs of participating, and paying for the teams' travel to final events and big LANs," he said, referring to tournaments that are run over local PC connections rather than the Internet.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the NCAA, the monolithic organization that governs college sports. Should college esports seek its validation?

Probably not, according to Parsi: “It may happen, but outside of the novelty of being recognized as being part of the NCAA, I don't really think there would be a huge benefit.”

Gaming on a college campus is hardly a new phenomenon. In 1993, Carnegie Mellon University had to institute a policy to curb intranet use of Doom. Colleges have been a hotbed for small LANs and console gathering for as long as video games have existed. But competitive gaming has also long been the type of unacademic activity you'd probably try to hide from your professors and parents and maybe significant other. Integrating gaming into the fabric of the educational system provides new opportunities for students who possess a rarely appreciated talent.

“Being able to get an education while playing the game I love at a semi-competitive level was the perfect option for me,” said Ma, who plans to study computer science when he heads to Robert Morris University next semester. His scholarship, which covers 50 percent of his costs, is something he wouldn’t have received at a school without an esports program.

Plus there are other benefits. The collegiate scene, he says, is comparable to the amateur offerings in League of Legends. “I get to play league at competitive level with a brand new infrastructure that can rival some of the bottom LCS teams,” Ma continued.

That's hardly an exaggeration. The school plans to set up a gaming room with 35 PCs and a projection screen so the team can film review. The plan is to put together a squad of 30 varsity players and 30 varsity reserves; the school will offers 50 percent scholarships to former players and 25 percent to the latter.

It’s a significant investment, and a sign that the program isn’t just a marketing ploy, as some critics have claimed. Robert Morris University isn’t a top tier school; it ranks 92 on the U.S. News & World Report regional ranking for Midwest schools. The scholarships it offers only covers at most half of the university’s $22,800 tuition. The program itself may not last the four years it will take for their first esports athletes to earn their degrees. But it’s a risk players are willing to take.

Ma is certainly excited for the opportunity. He plans to earn his degree at the same time he takes the North American Collegiate Championship away from the University of Washington. The thing Ma is most looking forward to isn’t necessarily the competition, or even his education. It's the snow, he says, a little tongue in cheek.

"Definitely the snow."

The most he gets in Houston is a little hail.

Photo by jacobroeland/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III

Today - 12:04 am

The new LCK meta: Singed top?

LCK Season 7 kicked off last night, giving us an early look at the new 10-ban meta.
Xing Li
Dot Esports
Image via Riot Games

Competitive League is back. Most professional leagues kick off the Spring Split later this week, with League of Legends Champions Korea getting the ball rolling last night. After a crazy offseason, we finally get to see what the pros make of the meta, how they’ll play around overpowered tanks, and what they’ll do with jungle plants.

One of the key questions going into this season was what the new draft phase would look like with the implementation of 10 bans (5 per team). We saw some of the effects of that last night. The first match involved a fascinating storyline with the ROX Tigers facing former top laner Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho for the first time.

But from a meta perspective, the more interesting match started after Smeb and KT walked off with a win. That’s when Longzhu Gaming and Samsung Galaxy both busted out pocket picks.

Wait, what? Singed top?

The craziness started in game one, when Samsung, playing on the red side (and picking second), inexplicably left Rengar available. That allowed Longzhu to first-pick the terrifying jungle assassin. In return though, they got Ezreal, Poppy, Zyra, and Viktor, strong picks themselves and ones that Samsung is familiar with.

Then with the last pick, top laner Gu "Expession" Bon-taek went with Singed.

Singed is fun and unique champion who can push minion waves in a way few champions can match. His mechanics have led to some pretty ridiculous strategies. But he’s not known in professional play because of his low overall damage and uselessness in team fights. Singed players typically play with a one-versus-five mentality, something that usually doesn’t agree with the typical Korean focus on team cohesion.

For Longzhu, Singed was honestly an afterthought for most of the game. That’s because Rengar took over. Lee "Crash" Dong-woo was all over Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong’s Lee Sin from the start, taking over the blue side jungle and enabling his bot lane to push with impunity.

That can be risky against Samsung’s strong solo laners, but it paid off as the Longzhu duo roamed around for turret after turret. Kim "PraY" Jong-in’s Jhin was absolutely incredible, pushing people off turrets and sniping them from range.

Samsung tried to turtle and defend, but that’s where Singed came in. Having built Zz’rot portal, he made life hell for Lee "CuVee" Seong-jin’s Poppy. Poppy wants to teamfight, but with Singed constantly pushing, CuVee had no priority and Longzhu romped.

We are not sure that Singed will continue to be a popular pick; he’s too easy to camp if there isn’t pressure elsewhere. But we’re also excited to see more team strategies being built around previously off-meta champions. 

More pocket picks to come

Image via Riot Games

Samsung responded in game two with a new champion: Camille somehow made it through the first ban phase. But then Longzhu came back with a counter pick of their own: Jax.

This game was what 10 bans was all about. It was incredibly fun watching these two top laners duel. At first, Camille had the upper hand, taking on Jax and then Song "Fly" Young-jun’s Ekko, beating both. But after Jax got a couple items, he became the stronger bruiser, getting a solo kill back. Stuns, dashes, and ults combined in a terrific dance. It was an incredible display of skill from two players and everything we hoped 10 bans could be.

Game 3 was a more straightforward Samsung win, but we got even more champions. New jungler Kang "Haru" Min-seung picked Kha’zix, and a level one invade got him first blood. In the mid lane, Lee "Crown" Min-ho picked Corki, someone we hadn’t seen in a some time. His range advantage kept Fly pushed in and Samsung played a steady game to win.

Three games, full of creative strategies and pocket picks. This is likely what Riot envisioned when they moved to the 10 ban system. But of course, these are the highest skilled players in the world—can players in Europe and North America, perhaps with smaller champion pools, recreate the success we saw last night?

In just a few days, we’ll find out.

Jan 17 2017 - 11:07 pm

How to Watch the ESL Hearthstone Trinity Series: Players, Format, Times, and More

It's the biggest team league the game has seen in over a year.
Callum Leslie
Weekend Editor, Dot Esports.
Photo via Blizzard Entertainment

It's been well over a year since Hearthstone last had a major team league in the West—something fans have been crying out for. Tomorrow the wait ends, and the ESL Trinity Series begins.

Eight trios, flying the banners of some of the biggest franchises in esports, will compete in best-of-11 matches until Mar. 2. The top teams will advance to a live finals at the ESL studios in California, with $75,000 up for grabs for the winning team.

This is a big moment for Hearthstone esports. After growth slowed in 2016, this league could get 2017 off to a big start as the major players in the scene attempt to stabilize and consolidate their positions.

Here's everything you need to know about the league, the teams involved, and how the matches will play out.

What is the format?

For each match, the teams will submit nine decks—one for each class in the game. Each team will ban out two of their opponent's decks, leaving seven decks from which the teams pick a final lineup of six.

The teams then play a best-of-11 match in the Last Hero Standing format—once a deck loses a game it is locked for the rest of the match, and you lose when you have no decks left. Unlike the Archon Team League Championships where each player was assigned a couple of decks to play, all six players will be playing every game of every series. They will do so with open communication, which viewers will be tuned in to throughout the broadcast.

The format requires a huge amount of strategy, deckbuilding skill, and team work. The teams will have to argue out each individual play, make their move within the short timeframe of a turn, and try not to fall out in the process. Matches will be long, and real-life fatigue will play a part.

How will the league be broadcast?

The broadcasts will be presented from ESL's studios in Burbank, California, with TJ Sanders and Brian Kibler slated to call the action.

The players themselves will be playing from home, adding another level of difficulty to the communication, until the league reaches its final stages.

The matches will be played on Tuesdays and Wednesdays starting tomorrow, with two matches per day. Games will start at 1pm ET (10am PT) for the duration of the seven week season and will be aired on ESL's Hearthstone Twitch channel.

Who are the teams?

The lineup features some of the biggest brands in esports. Two Hearthstone world champions, over a dozen tournament winners, and some wildcards too.

G2 Esports are easily the favorites to win it all. The trio of Dima "Rdu" Radu, Thijs Molendijk, and Adrian "Lifecoach" Koy is the most decorated in the game, with the Archon Team League Championships title also under their belt. The weight of expectation is firmly upon this European trio.

Although the team is relatively new, having just brought on a third member in time for the league, Alliance will be one of the teams to watch. The Swedish organization picked up a trio of players to represent the team and their country in three-time major winner Jon "Orange" Westberg, 2015 world champion Sebastian "Ostkaka" Engwall, and consistent journeyman Harald "Powder" Gimre.

Virtus Pro will be a force to be reckoned with. After starting out as rivals at the 2016 European Winter Championship, Artem "DrHippi" Kravets, Ole "Naiman" Batyrbekov, and Raphael "BunnyHoppor" Peltzer have formed a formidable unit. The team has been represented in countless major tournaments this year, with DrHippi finishing second in the world championship.

CompLexity will be looking to turn potential and underdog determination into results. Jan "SuperJJ" Janssen was impressively consistent throughout 2016, but did not win a major title. Simon "Crane" Raunholst has long been considered one of the best minds in the game but he has also not borne this out with results, while perennial prospect Tugay "MrYagut" Evsan will be looking to show just why he was so highly touted for so long.

The only all-American lineup in the tournament, Luminosity Gaming will also be hoping to live up to their billing. Branded a U.S. "super team" when they were formed last year, DreamHack Austin winner Keaton "Chakki" Gill and the experienced Paul "Zalae" Nemeth will be partnered by top young talent Frank "Fr0zen" Zhang.

The experienced but somewhat out-of-favor hand of Peter "Gaara" Stevanovic will look to guide Tempo Storm's young prospects David "JustSaiyan" Shan and Victor "Vlps" Lopez to success, while the veteran Team Liquid trio of David "Dog" Caero, Jeffrey "Sjow" Brusi, and Yevhenii "Neirea" Shumilin will aim to prove the value of experience.

Speaking of veterans, 2014 world champion James "Firebat" Kostesich, early leader Cong "StrifeCro" Shu, and 2014 World Esports Championship winner Andrew "TidesofTime" Biessener will round out the lineup for Cloud9. With Firebat having casted more than competed in 2016, StrifeCro having made just the odd appearance and TidesofTime having spent the past two years struggling with whether or not he loved the game anymore, this lineup will now have to deliver on a big stage.

Though 2017 is only a few weeks old, the ESL Trinity Series promises to be one of the most entertaining and competitive events of the year. The players will be tested to the limits of their skills—and Hearthstone fans will finally have another team league to get invested in.