PACG: The future of college eSports
Imagine a sport played by millions of amateurs, thousands of college students and dozens of professionals. Universities recruit players and offer scholarships. The sport’s most recent world championship brings in a $4.6 million prize pool.
It’s not football or basketball — but a PC game called League of Legends. And it’s coming to the University of Oregon.
Despite Pac-12’s failed efforts to start its own eSports network, a student group at UO has joined 10 other universities to form a new conference of competitive multiplayer gaming independent from the Pac-12.
The students envision scholarships, tournaments and crowds of online viewers like the 4,300 spectators who watched the University of Utah match against the University of Colorado, Boulder on Feb. 16.
Leading eSports schools, like Boise State and Utah, started building their eSports programs within the past two years and participating competitively last year.
Announced on Jan. 31, the Pacific Alliance of Collegiate Gamers (PACG) will run tournaments dedicated to the PC games League of Legends, Overwatch, Hearthstone and Rocket League.
“PACG aims to create a student-driven, competitive eSports league to further legitimize collegiate eSports and elevate the schools involved,” according to the conference’s webpage.
Tim Peckham, the League club president at UO, is rebuilding the club and has high hopes for its future.
“The future of gaming at the University of Oregon would be having scholarships, organized and sponsored eSports at the collegiate level and our own building, resources and administration that we can go to to further our growth,” Peckham said.
League of Legends, sometimes referred to as League, is a multiplayer online battle arena created in 2009. League is a super-strategic, team-based game, similar to capture the flag — only it includes an obstacle course of monsters in the middle.
A five-player team faces off against another five-player team to take over the other’s nexus (like a flag). Each player has their own champion, or animated character, and certain champions are better at certain tasks.
League is the number-one ranked PC game across the globe, according to a report done by Newzoo.
Matches between universities are broadcast on Twitch, a livestream gaming website similar to YouTube. A university League club will often use student commentators from their program to narrate the matches.
Competitions are played in Swiss format in which the top-ranked teams play the last-ranked until only two teams remain.
Prize money for global championships regularly reaches over $1 million, and world championships last year drew a crowd of over 73 million online viewers, according to ESPN’s eSports Charts.
Esports worldwide popularity is mirrored on college campuses around the country.
The University of Utah is one of the PACG universities offering a varsity program with scholarships. They look to recruit high school students for the coming season, similar to the way football and basketball recruit.
The creation of this conference has also gained attention and support from Michael Sherman, the head of college eSports at Riot Games, the creator of League of Legends.
Riot Games wants current high school freshmen to know that they can play League and be supported officially by their school of choice in four years, Sherman said.
“I think the PACG will help vocalize the desire from current students to play under their school banner, and ultimately help drive participation of the Pac-12,” Sherman said. “If you want to cause a waterfall effect of support in college sports, Power Five conferences like the Pac-12 are a great place to start.”
AJ Dimick is the Director of eSports Operations at Utah, and has been working with the students there to help build and advance the program.
“Since the beginning we’ve received support from many sides, and our program grew to include over 600 students,” Dimick said.
The varsity program at Utah officially started in April 2017. According to Dimick, year one for the program has been a grassroots project and has been focused on seeking external sponsorship and donorship to build on the current scholarship fund.
Scholarships for 33 first year players come out of the program’s budget, and students can receive up to $1,000 in scholarships each.
Awarding students competitive scholarships for gaming challenges the stereotype of the unmotivated gamer.
“We want to generate positive narratives about who these students are,” Dimick said. “Outsiders see the meme of these students sitting in the basement, and not who they actually are.”
The University of Arizona is also part of the new PACG conference. However, like UO, they do not have an established varsity eSports program on campus, according to the president of the eSports club at Arizona, Kevin Buchmiller.
Like Peckham, Buchmiller is working closely with university administration to create a varsity eSports program.
“Legitimacy is the hardest part,” Buchmiller said. “We are working hard on getting things started.”
Dimick said he was heavily involved with the Pac-12 when the conference decided in 2016 whether or not to sponsor their own eSports network.
The Pac-12 held a meeting with the 12 university presidents in November 2016, where the presidents of Stanford University and the University of Colorado – Boulder voted against the idea. Without a unanimous vote, the Pac-12 couldn’t move forward with the eSports network.
After this vote, Dimick says Utah president at the time, David Pershing, was very supportive of the eSports program, and pushed them to build one themselves.
“We had bottom up and top down support,” Dimick said.
Currently, the Athletics Department at Utah offers counsel on running the program, but it is entirely run by the Entertainment Arts and Engineering department, according to Dimick.
Buchmiller and Erica Cohen, the Arizona club vice president, worked together to join the creation of PACG.
“Erica handled many of the meetings associated with setting up the PACG,” Buchmiller said. “We had a representative at almost every meeting and our inputs on how we’d like things to look were well received and well heard.”
Buchmiller hopes to have an established varsity program at Arizona by the time he graduates in May 2019. He’s been working to establish one for close to two years.
Having a dedicated facility for eSports is “almost a requirement,” Buchmiller said. “This is something we would love to setup in conjunction with a varsity program.”
Because the League club at UO is not a university-recognized varsity program, it is currently recognized solely as a club. Since it’s a club, it’s assigned a meeting room for weekly meetings, which is often a room in the basement of McKenzie.
Currently the eSports facility at Utah is a 900-square-foot room dedicated to training and competition, according to Dimick — much larger than the basement of McKenzie.
Peckham said it’s been difficult to recruit new members for the club due to the lack of tabling opportunities compared to fall term. Last term, there were up to 50 students at meetings, but because the rooms for meetings often change, the club is down to about 20 students.
David Gugliotti is a UO sports business graduate student that has been working with the Center for Student Involvement this year to move the club towards varsity status.
“There’s a lot more in this than I realized,” Gugliotti said. “There’s parameters around [donating and sponsorship] that I didn’t know were in place.”
Gugliotti has had meetings with Mandy Chong, the CSI Program Director, to discuss what it would take to go from a club to a varsity program.
“The meetings have been really informative and helpful,” Gugliotti said.
According to Chong, deciding whether the varsity program at UO would be under the Computer Science department or the Athletics Department is very much left up to the student organization and departments themselves.
“The departments would need to evaluate their ability to work with this club which would include assessing staff time, facilities, liability and more,” Chong said. The UO League club will have to meet the departments requirements in order to gain their support.
Being recognized by the university as either a club or a varsity program “really depends on what the students hope to accomplish and what their group purpose is,” Chong said.
Gugliotti says that it would be a long discussion about whether they would go with the computer science or athletics department.
Computer science would be better at getting physical support from people and finding a facility; however, athletics would be better at finding budget support, Gugliotti explained.
“At the end of the day,” Gugliotti said, “we want whichever department is willing to support our purpose more.”
Gugliotti and Peckham say that they want the club to grow into a program where prospective students come to the university for the eSports program, similar to the way they come here for sports.
UO was the fourth school to join the creation of PACG in December, according to Gugliotti.
Despite UO’s League club being one of the smallest eSports programs in the PACG, they’ve had a strong voice in the formation of the conference.
The club needs sponsorship for a facility, scholarships and equipment, and they’re navigating this complicated process with UO.
Meanwhile, Peckham and Gugliotti are always looking for more team members.
“The best way for students to get involved with the club is to come to the club and to contact or come talk to us,” Peckham said. “Come see what we’re all about and how we can help them become a part of our community.”
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