The show goes on at UCLA for the new esports program, which trains in the renowned John Wooden Center and includes nine competitive online gaming teams and nearly 100 members.
Launched only a month before the coronavirus pandemic brought the sports world to a screeching halt, the esports program and interest around the world was just hitting a ramp to increased popularity in March.
"We're not happy that we're the only competitive sport right now, although we're grateful that we can operate," Cole Schwartz, one of two full-time esports coordinators for UCLA Recreation, told the university website. "But we want to be back in the normal world. Nothing defeats the stigmas against gaming more than people of all races, classes and genders gathering in a room together to compete."
Players are competing remotely -- from their apartments or homes and at their own computers -- on a national level. There are challenges inherent in meeting in a virtual environment across continents for practice and meetings, but the program is committed to keeping communication going.
UCLA has both varsity and junior varsity teams for League of Legends, Overwatch and Hearthstone and one team each for Rocket League, Dota 2 and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Dillon LeDuc, in his first year in the program, achieved the No. 1 ranking on the North American Hearthstone ladder.
Senior Naveen Sheik plays on the varsity Overwatch team and doubles as marketing director for the UCLA club sport.
Sheik is hosting two-hour practices and scrimmages two or three evenings a week. For the purpose of engagement, he arranged for players to stream their gameplay live on the UCLA Esports Twitch channel. In the months since the pandemic began, global viewership on Twitch doubled as other sports went into lockdown.
"I didn't grow up with esports, but my 5- and 6-year-old cousins are growing up with it," Sheik told UCLA.edu. "I think this increase in viewership is going to have a long-term impact, where people will see it as the norm."
ESPN has turned to esports to fill hours of programming normally reserved for NBA and Major League Baseball games this time of year. With pro sports largely on hiatus, esports is filling a need for networks and viewers hungry for a competitive fix.
"That's opening up a lot of eyes," said UCLA esports coordinator Sunny Yen. "People used to get very upset if ESPN broadcast esports. And now we're in a place where people are giving it more of a shot and realizing they like esports."
--Field Level Media