Esports is on the rise – with alumni at every level.
The wide world of sports just got a lot wider. Esports—competitive video games, or to those in the know, just “gaming”—are a big deal these days, with 385 million people around the world playing and watching their favorite titles. Esports is big business too, with college campuses creating top-notch gamers as well as industry talent. This is how UC San Diego has prepared major players to enter every dimension of the esports industry.
The NFL had John Madden; the NBA has Marv Albert; LoL has Dom Roemer. Granted, he’s younger than those legends, and his league has less to do with defending a ball and more so dealing with monsters and magic.
For four years Roemer has been a professional commentator—a “caster” or “streamer” in the gaming world—for the game League of Legends, a multiplayer battle arena game with upwards of 100 million active players each month, not to mention the millions more who tune into gamecasts to watch other players’ techniques and hear what the casters have to say.
Roemer may be speaking to millions now, but the former computer science student started out making offhand play-by-play commentary with friends in his Muir dorm. He now lives in Shanghai and is a voice for the game’s Chinese league, providing real-time analysis of game play, team dynamics and colorful insight into individual players’ stories.
“I act as an ambassador for the sport. I want to turn these five players into heroes, into people you can follow and support,” Roemer says. “I try to tell the stories these teams have gone through and what’s led them to where they are and celebrate their moments of victory. They put in countless hours of practice behind the scenes and you don’t always get to see that.”
It’s one thing to play as an avatar in a game; it’s another to actually be that avatar. Such is the case for Charlet Chung ’05, an actress who’s been on a number of prime-time television shows, but is widely known as the voice of D.Va (pronounced “diva”), on the game Overwatch, a team-based, first-person game in which a diverse group of heroes work together to combat a robot rebellion.
Chung’s character D.Va is an animated young woman who wields a bright pink exoskeletal suit marked by twin fusion cannon blasters. Beyond the firepower, D.Va has been welcomed as a role model for female gamers—who make up about 45 percent of gamers in the U.S.—thanks in part to the her backstory in the game: she’s a former pro gamer who now uses her skills to defend her homeland.
“Landing the role of D.Va in Overwatch has changed my life,” says Chung. “It was the first game that I had been on that had a huge fan following. I feel very fortunate to be a part of the Overwatch community because of the fantastic fans and a team of leaders who really have a vision for inclusivity, diversity and exceptional gaming.”
UC San Diego has Division I athletics on the horizon, but student gamers are already dominating the DI version of esports. Teams from the student organization Triton Gaming have historically—as historic as a new sport can be—performed well at the national level, earning top-10 ranks in many of the industry’s most popular games. Kevin He ’16 founded the organization in 2014 as an outlet for gaming enthusiasts on campus to meet and support each other as well as network—in many senses of the word.
“Students on campuses with active gaming communities often gain leadership experiences that help them apply for jobs in the industry,” says He, who can testify to that fact—he’s now an associate product manager of chapters at Tespa, the leading network of collegiate gaming clubs across North America, doing very much what he began here on campus, only at a larger scale.
Starting out as just a handful of students, the organization now has 600 active members, with on-campus expos and events that regularly draw upwards of 2,000 attendees from all around San Diego.
Even Dom Roemer, the caster, was an early member of the organization, and says Triton Gaming was hugely influential in his career. “The community at Triton Gaming completely made me who I am,” he says. “When I succeeded we celebrated together, and when I failed, they showed me how to do better next time.”
Esports may live online, but its real-world communities are gaining serious traction at colleges. J.T. Vandenbree ’09 works for Riot Games, and is set to turn the success of the professional league into a collegiate circuit—the NCAA of the esports world. As associate college esports manager, he’s shaping the development of the League of Legends collegiate tournament, which had 311 different university teams participate last year, including UC San Diego.
“We don’t see the difference between college esports and college sports,” says Vandenbree. “The scope of interest is widening, the pool of advertisers is expanding beyond game-related companies, and the number and quality of games are on the rise.” He speaks of League of Legends as a game meant to hold your attention, in the same way that watching and playing basketball doesn’t get old. “These games have the potential to be as deep and meaningful to people as the sports we’ve celebrated for a long time,” he says. “We’re trying to change the perspective that gaming is just a hobby. Because nowadays it’s something that can get you a career, help you develop life skills and even make you a better person—you learn to work together, strive for improvement, take critical feedback, set goals and build a plan to reach them.”
Having familiar faces, voices and players to root for is as key for esports as it is for soccer and football, but so too are the large support teams that make it possible—the trainers, camera crews and equipment manufacturers in the sports arena are mimicked in the computer scientists, animators, programmers, artists and engineers of the esports world.
Alex Ferbrache ’16, a computer science alumnus, is one of these key players. He’s now a software developer for Xbox working on user authentication tools, and previously was an engineer at San Diego–based Pocketwatch Games, which developed Tooth and Tail, a strategy game featuring anthropomorphic rodents.
Like He, Ferbrache got his start on campus as well, co-founding the Video Game Development Club in 2010 to try his hand at actually making a game. His first attempt? Panda Go Seek—where a player tries to hide their panda from another one controlled by artificial intelligence. He further improved his game development skills during the Software System Design and Implementation course. “That class was a really invaluable experience for me,” Ferbrache says. “It helped me grow because it was taking a project from beginning to end, and seeing that end-to-end workflow was useful for me as an engineer.”
Aside from enjoying the technical challenge of creating a game, Ferbrache says he especially likes how games have the power to bring people together, both virtually and in real life. And he speaks from experience, having found a partner among lines of code.
Enter Nicole Oliver ’12. Oliver, who was studying art at UC San Diego and always enjoyed gaming, also thought it would be fun to develop a game. She joined the Video Game Development Club, and found her artistic skills were just as necessary to video game creation as those of coders. Those pandas don’t draw themselves, after all.
“My role was mostly heading up the art effort in the games people were creating—rounding up artists or doing some art myself,” Oliver says. “I ended up with a lot of knowledge about the many different pieces of being an artist on a game, especially an indie game, since you have to wear a lot of hats.”
Oliver taught herself how to code, and went from making websites to coding applications over a five-year period. Now she’s a web developer for Nintendo, working on an application to help the company manage its internal resources during the game building and localization process. While she didn’t intentionally seek a career at a game company, she says working at one does have its perks.
“I imagine the reason people like working on games is similar to why I wanted to go into art—you want to create a world,” she says. “You feel connected to that and want to share that feeling with other people.”
Oliver and Ferbrache are now creating a world together—engaged to be married this summer. It’s just one of the many ways modern gaming brings people together: in person or virtually, in a campus dorm or out in the world, as a hobby or with a career in sight; esports are not only changing the games we play, but the way we play the game.
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