Historically, football, basketball and baseball dominate the headlines in collegiate athletics. The cheering, buzzing student sections and blaring referee whistles highlight these college sporting events.
However, there is a new sport that is gaining traction rapidly. It is not played on a court or a field in front of student sections and large crowds, yet esports has quickly become one of the largest sporting attractions in the world, according to Statista.
At the college level, UC Irvine was the first public university to create an esports program in the spring of 2016. Many other schools followed suit, including Cal Poly.
Now, the Mustangs have Division I teams for Valorant, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Rocket League and League of Legends.
League of Legends is a multiplayer online battle arena game in which ten players are split into two teams of five. The teams then battle it out on a map called Summoner’s Rift. The fundamental goal of the game is for each team to destroy one another’s base before the other team destroys their own. Games can last anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour.
Each year, Cal Poly’s Division I team plays in the Collegiate League of Legends (CLOL), which is run by Riot Games, the game’s developer. CLOL is a group of schools throughout North America that compete to play in the League of Legends College Championship.
If the team wins enough games in pool play, they would advance to the West Coast playoffs. After the West Coast playoffs comes the National tournament.
The furthest Cal Poly’s team has advanced in its history was round two in the 2017 West Coast playoffs. However, they weren’t as lucky this year when they placed 27th out of 36 teams.
Software engineering freshman Kyle Tran, who currently plays on the Division I team for Cal Poly, addressed what needs to be worked on to find more success.
“The biggest problem with the team was communication,” Tran said. “And I feel like it’s an issue that can be fixed with time. Our current roster was formed last second, so we didn’t get to play as a team much before the tournament.”
The esports team at Cal Poly has a much harder time garnering sponsorships and funding than the school’s 21 NCAA Division-I teams, according to club president and computer science senior Jacob Gold.
Gold created a pitch deck for the team, which is a brief presentation that gives potential sponsors a reason as to why they should sponsor the club during an event.
“We started from zero. I had no idea what a pitch deck was,” Gold said. “But what we did is we compiled all the statistics: how many people we have in our Discord server, how many Twitter followers, the number of people watching our Twitch streams and how much engagement we are getting.”
Although creating a pitch deck to garner financial support is a significant difference between the esports team and other sports teams at Cal Poly, there are some similarities as well.
One of these similarities is that the esports team watches replays of their games to see what they can improve upon and learn about the playing tendencies of their opponents, similar to film review sessions in sports like football and basketball.
However, their practices and games are done in the players’ separate rooms, with their only interaction being a voice call. This is what makes communication vital in the game.
Tran said that the team is able to form bonds even though they are not physically in the same room.
“Playing together bonded us because we all had personalities that meshed well together,” Tran said.
Also similar to the NCAA-sanctioned teams at Cal Poly, the esports team scouts new players and holds tryouts for each new year during the fall quarter.
“[The scouts] are looking for not only skill but also cohesiveness, teamwork, communication and the ability to learn,” Gold said. “A lot of times, we’ll get people who happen to be good at the game but are not team players… we want it to be a commitment from all the players.”
Even though esports has grown a lot in recent years, Gold said he hopes to see a professional esports program with an arena and full-time staff in the future. Although he said that he has had conversations with administrators across ASI, the college of engineering and other campus entities, it’s hard for those conversations to develop without funding.
“It’s going to take a lot of student support,” Gold said.
In the meantime, League of Legends continues to increase its popularity, as the 2021 World Final Match was the most-viewed global esports event, with an average minute audience (AMA) of 30,604,255, according to LOL Esports Media.
“I think esports is its own thing –– it’s a digital transformation of competition,” Gold said. “I think there are a lot of things that esports can do that regular sports can’t do. They both serve a really important purpose for a lot of reasons: for strengthening the campus community and for getting people involved.”