Time creeps by slowly, and the looming presence of COVID-19 continues to keep me indoors. But this new, unfamiliar way of life has prompted a return to an old, familiar activity: video gaming — specifically, living and dying in the apocalyptic arena of Fortnite.
In between work, school and global anxieties, gaming is a way for me to stay connected with friends. Talking strategy, crushing the enemy and cracking jokes on the gaming community platform Discord remind me of the little joys in life.
Gaming is embedded in the culture of my generation — Generation Z — and it enjoys a prominent place at UCLA. The $1 billion world of esports — where mostly millennial gamers compete for a share of the sponsorship and advertising money — is unknown territory for many Americans. Yet esports is growing faster than any traditional sport. In Wuhu, China, near the Yangtze River, Chinese corporation TenCent is building an entire esports city. But among the top 10 highest-earning players, there isn’t a single American. If UCLA Esports has its way, that’s about to change.
In 2018, esports was added to the UCLA Club and Recreation Sports program. Co-founded by Esports Engagement Coordinators Cole Schwartz ’19 and Sunny Yen ’19, UCLA Esports currently competes in eight different games, including blockbuster titles League of Legends, Overwatch and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. They’re violent, but so is Shakespeare.
The UCLA Esports Training Center, which opened in the John Wooden Center on Feb. 24, resembles a NASA control center, with banks of computers adorned with sponsor names, including MSI and Razer. Here, local heroes battle in massive virtual arenas, yelling at opponents from across Southern California, as fans look over their shoulders and urge mayhem.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus brought an unwelcome peace to this cyber battleground. Due to safer-at-home orders, players, coaches, board members and staff headed home, where they missed the broadband and camaraderie that are vital to honing their skills.
“COVID has hurt esports as much as it has hurt traditional sports,” says Chris Okamura, the head coach of the League of Legends junior varsity team. “We have lost the momentum of live events.”
Yet teams are preparing for the 2020–21 season, while keeping physical distancing in place. Former UCLA Esports Director Ashley Denktas ’20, who was heavily involved with planning for the season, says more tournaments will be livestreamed so gamers can play in front of a student audience. The tournaments will be shown via Twitch, the Amazon-owned livestreaming gamer platform that has had a 50% increase in viewership during the pandemic.
Show us the money
UCLA Esports is also opening doors for those who want to pursue a career in the industry or become a star — like the world’s top earner, Denmark’s Johan Sundstein, who has acquired nearly $7 million in prize money. By connecting students to gaming companies, the program has helped some receive internships and job offers.
In partnership with the North America Scholastic Esports Federation, UCLA Esports also plays an integral role in seeding gaming ecosystems at local high schools. According to Schwartz, the program will eventually host summer camps, where high schoolers can see “how it’s possible to have a career in esports, not just as a player but as a manager or an analyst.”
Although esports is male-dominated, interest among women is growing. Between 2016 and 2018, women watching esports increased from 23.9% to 30.4%. And about 35% of women worldwide play esports. However, according to Women in Games, only 5% of professional gamers are women. “In my online gaming experience, being a woman is really hard. I can’t play online games without the chance that I’ll be harassed,” says Olivia Hughes, a second-year student who is the Rocket League game manager. She adds, “I’m glad UCLA Esports doesn’t experience this. Our staff stands in solidarity with women.”
UCLA’s gaming community offers a safe space for friendship and connection. “I’ve gotten a lot closer to not only players on the JV team, but also the varsity team,” says Sean Moore, a second-year student on last year’s Overwatch JV team. “They’ve definitely helped make quarantine more fun.”
Video games were once dismissed as brain-rotting time-wasters. But as they have become more sophisticated, they have connected many gamers around the world. “People don’t realize that a lot of the most popular games today are multiplayer and can be enjoyed with your closest friends,” Schwartz says.
The pleasure of video games is simple: They bring people together in these lonely times.
Louise Kim, a second-year English major, is the editorial assistant at UCLA Magazine.