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March 3, 2020

Esports arrives at USC


By Hugh Hart

USC fans cheer on the varsity League of Legends team as they battle it out against opponents

It’s only one o’clock on a sunny fall afternoon but Hovik Terovsepyan has already died twice. To be more precise, his League of Legends (LoL) avatar was digitally destroyed by enemy forces deployed remotely by players in a practice scrimmage.

Fortunately for Terovsepyan, a member of USC’s new Esports Union, death is fleeting in the massively popular game, so he “re-spawned” and lived to fight another day. Now, between matches, he is hanging out with half a dozen twentysomething teammates on the USC League of Legends Varsity Team. They pass the time playing old-fashioned analog card games. But the serious competition will soon resume on a row of identical computer screens lined up against the wall. There, amid explosive bursts of color, the student players will destroy turrets, slay dragons, kill jungle monsters, demolish “minions” and try to annihilate the enemy’s home base known as “Nexus.”

To become proficient in the medieval fantasy–themed League of Legends universe, players need lightning-fast reflexes, prodigious memorization skills, and acute powers of analysis to master the game’s dense constellation of special powers unleashed by 145 warrior characters known as “Champions.” Each warrior is fortified by “items” purchased with “gold” earned by killing enemy combatants. To thrive in “battle,” players invest hundreds of hours learning the game’s intricacies. What’s the payoff? “Honestly, it’s a good way to decompress,” says Terovsepyan, a USC Marshall School of Business junior who started playing the game at age 11. “Especially in college, it’s fun to play League of Legends because it’s a temporary escape from real life.”

Marshall classmate William Huang sets down his cards for a minute and points out that video game expertise these days can also be leveraged into lucrative professional careers. “I grew up with League, but when I started playing, there wasn’t all this franchising and money involved. Now, pro players can make hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Huang says. “They’re doing the same thing professional football players do, which is to provide entertainment for millions of people around the world.”

All of the Esports Union team members initially locked into videogame culture as kids, though few match League of Legends competitor Ulysses Quesada in terms of early immersion. “I’ve been playing video games since before I could walk,” says Quesada, a sophomore from Milwaukee majoring in biochemistry with an eye on a pediatrics career.

Hovering quietly over the players is Head Coach, Joseph Jacko. A superstar LoL competitor at Virginia Tech, Jacko graduated last spring and joined USC’s Esports Union program in September. His biggest challenge? “Everyone’s got a different playing style,” Jacko says. “We’re trying to sort through all of that and teach our players that sometimes you need to sacrifice your lead for your teammate to succeed. This is something we’re constantly working on.”

With minimal fanfare, the players drift over to the computers, put on headsets and find their places on the virtual League of Legends landscape, dominated by a central jungle and three paths, known as lanes. Garrett Krichbaum, a muscular USC Viterbi School of Engineering data science graduate student and former weight lifter, plays champion Syndra in the Middle Lane; Brandon Gunning, taking on the role of champion Caitlyn, focuses on the Bottom Lane; Cameron Phan, as champion Morgana, provides all-around support; and Huang plays the aggressive Renekton in the Top Lane. University of Illinois gamers 2000 miles away remotely activate their forces on the field of battle and the room fills with the sounds of keyboard clacking and mile-a-minute chatter. “I got two!” shouts Phan. “He looks pretty squishy,” observes Krichbaum, using the slang descriptor for a soft target.

After a half-an-hour of mouse-and-keyboard-maneuvering, the match ends in narrow defeat for the Trojans. Coach Jacko, who will present a detailed post-mortem a few days later, tells his players: “You guys played pretty well for the first 25 minutes.”

This League of Legends team constitutes the leading edge of USC’s Esports Union, which is managed by USC Games, a program jointly supervised by the School of Cinematic Arts and Viterbi School of Engineering. Keanu Concepcion, Interactive Media & Games Division Class of ’19, who now works as a production coordinator at Firefly Games, began pushing for the creation of an esports program in the fall of 2017. USC Games Professor and Head of Marketing and Strategy, Jim Huntley recalls, “Keanu was an esports fanatic and kept insisting that the University invest behind an official esports initiative. We turned him down repeatedly, until he finally pushed back and said, ‘We’ve been the number one game design school for almost ten years running. So how is it that other schools have an official program and we don’t?’ It was hard to argue against that logic.”

Huntley, working with Danny Bilson, Director of USC Games and Chair of the School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media & Games Division, and SCA Dean Elizabeth Daley, took the lead in assembling the Esports Union infrastructure, which now includes Arnold Ha (ESU Director), Clara Chu (ESU Associate Director), Andrew Obeso (ESU Promotions & Outreach), Yifan Meng (ESU Technical Director), and Co-Advisors Gordon Bellamy and Collin Kelly. For their initial push into MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) territory, Huntley and team prioritized League of Legends, a game devised 10 years ago by USC alumni Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill, co-founders of Riot Games. “We wanted to do this thoughtfully,” says Huntley. “Other schools might launch 12 teams simultaneously, but if they’re not well-financed or operationally stable, those teams are only going to have middling success. We made the strategic decision to start with one game and do it right. Once we make all of our mistakes with that one, then we can support and provide resources for additional games, successfully.”

League of Legends varsity team gets get serenaded with the fight song by the USC band

USC’s embrace of esports comes at a time when video game culture has made significant strides expanding its reach to mainstream audiences. Esports attract about 380 million fans worldwide with global revenue estimated to reach $1.4 billion in 2020. CBS has ordered a sitcom focused on NBA athlete-turned esports entrepreneur Rick Fox. Washington Post recently debuted the “Launcher” section devoted exclusively to esports coverage. Individual stars captivate the public imagination, as when sixteenyear-old Fortnite World Cup winner Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf earned $3 million over the summer by beating 100 competitors (whittled down from 40 million entrants) at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins, esports’ most popular streamer, makes about $600,000 a month on the strength of his 12-million-member fan base. Bullish on esports-as-spectacle, Blizzard Entertainment recently opened L.A.’s first dedicated esports arena. Last year, the League of Legends World Championship finals in South Korea outdrew the Super Bowl, pulling in nearly 100 million online viewers. Reflecting the rising currency of video games, Esports Union has attracted sponsors, including computer company MSI and production company Om Films, that provide financial and material support to the program. Because esports falls outside the purview of the NCAA, varsity student players are currently eligible to receive cash stipends.

In addition to the MOBA tournaments that galvanize USC’s competitive efforts, Esports Union hopes to collaborate on new curricula pegged to esports. “There are a few different paths we’re considering,” Huntley says. “On the business side, we’d love to partner with Marshall on how to operationally build, fund and manage an esports team. And since social media and marketing exposure plays such a big role in the success of esports, we’d like to partner with the USC Annenberg School of Communications on classes that teach best practices in that space.”

A significant challenge faced by esports practitioners is the lack of gender diversity represented in most male-dominated esports rosters. Huntley says, “We’re extremely cognizant of the strength and value of inclusivity in our program and throughout the University. Esports, across the board, need to have better gender balance, especially in front of the camera. Unfortunately, the biggest barrier to more gender inclusion is that there’s a lot of community toxicity. At USC, we have a zero-tolerance policy regarding players being toxic, but speaking more generally, women who play League of Legends tell me they turn off their mics because, as soon as other players hear their voice, all sorts of inappropriate stuff gets said. That understandably turns a lot of women players off.”

Whether or not Esports Union immediately produces a new generation of full-time League of Legends professionals, Huntley believes the program can play an invaluable role in grooming students for success in the real world. “Just like football, basketball or baseball, esports develop a student’s ability to collaborate in a professional environment. We all have to learn how to take feedback constructively, figure out other people’s rhythms, learn their styles and how they like to communicate. We are not necessarily looking for social butterflies, but we do need players who can engage with others in a positive way. If you pick up those skills in an esports environment, it’s only going to help when students go out into the real world.”