Inside UC Irvine's Push to Become the ‘Duke Basketball’ of Collegiate Esports

Inside UC Irvine's Push to Become the ‘Duke Basketball’ of Collegiate Esports

UC Irvine 'Heroes of the Storm' esports team competes at the Heroes of the Dorm event in Nevada Blizzard

At the California college, Mark Deppe is building a pro gaming model for campuses nationwide

At the California college, Mark Deppe is building a pro gaming model for campuses nationwide

Perhaps no school has done more to further the spread of collegiate esports than the University of California at Irvine. First announced in 2016 and now closing out a successful first year, UC Irvine's esports program – which features scholarships, training facilities, and a dedicated staff – is a model for other schools across the country. Last weekend, at Heroes of the Dorm – a Heroes of the Storm tournament hosted by Blizzard Entertainment and loosely modeled off of NCAA March Madness – we spoke with UC Irvine's director of esports, Mark Deppe whose team lost in the semifinals to the eventual champions, University of Texas – Arlington. Mark spoke at length about the process of making UCI Esports a reality, the true value of dedicated esports programs, and the future of collegiate esports on campuses worldwide.

Collegiate esports have been around for a while, but can you talk a bit about the inspiration to formalize UC Irvine's program into something more substantial, with institutional support?
I came up with this idea while working in "student life" at UC Irvine. I'd been at UCI for six years, but I was also in an MBA program right around the corner from Blizzard's headquarters. I had to do a report on a publicly traded company, so I chose Activision-Blizzard. And I saw how esports has this crazy competitive ecosystem that colleges were totally ignoring.

Around the same time, I saw some articles on how UCI was ranked as the top school for gamers in North America. These articles talked about how our esports clubs were winning national championships, renting buses to follow our teams or to create a home court advantage for matches. UCI also has one of the biggest game design programs in the country, and we're surrounded by the game industry and throwing massive LAN parties. We've given out tens of thousands of dollars in prize money. But the thing that really blew my mind was that other schools had just started offering scholarships for their competitive gaming teams.

And if they're doing this – well, we're the best school for this in the country – so why aren't we doing it? After nervously thinking about this idea for months, I reached out to the president of the student body and asked "what can we do to support the clubs? Would you want an esports program?" And they said of course, that would be really great.

So what was the process like for pitching this idea to student government and ultimately UC Irvine's administrators?
UC Irvine doesn't have a football team, and we'll never be in a final four in basketball. We're never going to be a power conference team, so how do we challenge other universities and influence the average American? Esports. That was my pitch to student government leaders. To convey this sentiment to the vice chancellor, we brought in a group of gamers, diverse in age, gender, majors, ethnicity, etc. – to the vice chancellor's office to have a conversation about how big gaming is on campus. Students are coming from around the country to our school because of its gaming culture. Usually, potential students also get into Berkeley or UCLA, and then choose one of those. But now, people are choosing UC Irvine.

Anyway, we asked for permission to talk to sponsors, and to repurpose part of the student center; we had our eyes on this pool room that no one ever used. So we thought "what if we took over that space and made it this gaming center?"

How did you go about securing sponsorships for the esports program? I'd imagine most hadn't done anything like this before.
One of our students founded a company called High School StarLeague, and he knows every college organizer in the country, pro teams, sponsors, etc. One of the kids he was mentoring at a high school level was the son of a vice president at iBuyPower, and with three text messages, he gets us a sit down meeting. And we said “we're the best school in the world for games; if you can help make this cost neutral to the university, then we can make this the best school for esports in the world.”

We were hoping for just some video cards or something. But they're like, "yeah let's make this happen," and they sent over an offer for a multiyear thing valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, with computers getting refreshed every year. When we go back to the administrators, we were able to say "they're going to write some huge checks for this," and a lot of the resources we need to provide are here. I bet we can find the rest.

In December 2015, I was brought before the chancellor's cabinet, and I was supposed to give a 15 minute presentation on the proposal. But our student body president had already been talking to the board – so my pitch was more like a victory lap. They were sold on it before I walked into the room.

Basically, the NCAA model does not work for esports

So is the program still revenue neutral to the university? 

Our players practice in the arena for free, but everyone else pays four dollars an hour. Between that and sponsorship, we will be in the black for our first year.

Wow. In addition to yourself, how many people are working full time at UC Irvine Esports?
There's myself, and our head of the arena. We're the two-full time staff, but we also have 22 student staff members. Team managers, IT support, and coaches – those are paid positions. And then we've got a few interns, plus volunteers for social media.

When you're making hiring decisions, what kinds of model are you looking towards for the program?
Athletics programs are where we want to get to, but we're not there yet – we pitch ourselves as a work in progress. We provide some tutoring for our students when they need it, but we don't have full-time academic counselors and staff. We also work with a school psychologist as a team psychologist. As far as nutrition and media training go, those are planned. We've had some big media opportunities, and we talk with our players about that – so, talking points, what to say, what not to say, etc. But we need to keep building those things.

So if athletics programs are the ideal model for UCI Esports, does that also mean you've spoken with the NCAA?
I'm sitting on a panel in a few weeks with a vice president from the NCAA and the head of ESL, and we're talking to all these athletic directors. But I don't think athletics are exactly the right place for esports at colleges, especially because they're so grounded in the NCAA's structure and its rules. Esports totally flies in the face of those. The NCAA moves very slowly; they have all these sports that don't have very good viewership, but they continue to support them. Esports changes way faster than that. Heroes of the Storm did not exist two years ago; League could be gone tomorrow. How do you adjust when games come and go so fast? They're not set up for that.

Moreover, 90% of their revenue is television revenue. So, one, people just aren't paying for television now because they stream and watch online, and, two, all the money is going to publishers anyway, because they control that. Basically, the NCAA model does not work for esports.

So besides Heroes of the Storm, how many teams are you guys supporting right now?
League of Legends is our only scholarship team, and there are 11 players on that. I'm hoping to add at least one team next year; we're strongly leaning toward Overwatch. We have a great Overwatch team and it's a massively fun game – and if you look at our arena, most people are either playing that or League. As we continue to build the program, we'll support even more games with scholarship.

So how much are flagship events like Heroes of the Dorm the emphasis of UCI Esports? What's in it for players who aren't willing or able to put in the time to compete at this level?
So, our program is based on four pillars – competition is one of them, but also academics/research, community, and entertainment. We're a center for the academic conversation about esports. We have a huge emphasis on community, creating opportunities for students to engage and hang out in a social setting. And that aligns with entertainment – so shoutcasting, streaming online, live events, tournaments, etc. Of our four pillars, we've honestly invested a similar amount of time and effort into each. Events like Heroes of the Dorm are about both entertainment and competition, and we'd love to do more of this.

This interview has been edited and condensed.