Let the gaming begin!

UCI’s groundbreaking eSports arena opens with much fanfare

A cheering crowd of nearly 1,500 people – some in elaborate costumes – mobbed Friday night’s grand opening of the University of California, Irvine’s eSports arena, the first of its kind at a public college.

As a phalanx of television and print news crews looked on, a snaking line of students, kids, parents and professors streamed through the space, lit up by the glow of 80 custom gaming PCs and a webcasting studio that will broadcast matches to millions of viewers.

  1. alt placeholder Student volunteers - including third-year criminology, law & society major Hillary Phan - test out the new equipment in UCI's eSports arena before it opens. Steve Zylius / UCI
  2. alt placeholder Mark Deppe (left), acting director of UCI eSports, helps offload new chairs for the eSports arena. Steve Zylius / UCI
  3. alt placeholder The eSports arena gets colorful new carpeting. Steve Zylius / UCI
  4. alt placeholder Students assemble one of the arena's specially designed gaming chairs. Steve Zylius / UCI
  5. alt placeholder Mark Deppe, acting director of UCI eSports, wears a customized polo shirt. Steve Zylius / UCI
  6. alt placeholder Students testing the eSports arena's gaming equipment play "League of Legends." Steve Zylius / UCI
  7. alt placeholder Scholarship recipients and members of UCI's inaugural eSports team (front to back) Youngbin Chung, Loc Tran and and Parsa Baghai demo the gaming equipment for Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Thomas Parham (center) and Student Affairs chief of staff Edgar Dormitorio. Steve Zylius / UCI
  8. alt placeholder Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Thomas Parham throws his fist in the air Friday after cutting the ribbon and officially opening UCI's eSports arena. He's flanked by Darren Su (left), vice president of iBUYPOWER, which provided the venue's gaming PCs, and Edmund Har, chief financial officer of Oomba, which funded its webcasting studio. Steve Zylius / UCI
  9. alt placeholder Gaming enthusiasts wait outside the arena for their first look. Nearly 1,500 people attended Friday's grand opening. Steve Zylius / UCI
  10. alt placeholder Cosplayer Marina Young-Meyers, a fourth-year UCI civil engineering major, dresses as Crystal Maiden from the video game "Defense of the Ancients" at the opening of the eSports arena. Steve Zylius / UCI
  11. alt placeholder Newlyweds Ben Kempenich, an MBA alum, and Jen Jen Chen, a UCI assistant clinical professor of pediatric pulmonology, battle with each other at the opening of UCI's eSports arena. Steve Zylius / UCI
  12. alt placeholder Fourth-year business administration major Christopher Pinkstaff concentrates on his game during the eSports arena's grand opening. Steve Zylius / UCI

“Holy cow, dude, this is rad!” one wide-eyed dad said as he and his two boys entered the high-tech venue, home to UCI’s elite new “League of Legends” team and also available to casual gamers for about $4 per hour.

Mark Deppe, acting director of UCI eSports, said he was “thrilled” by the large turnout and good vibes: “It’s fantastic. No one else has a high-end recreational facility like this that’s open to everybody. Today was a huge day for us, but this is just the beginning. Thank you to everyone who moved mountains to create this beautiful place.”

Last year, Deppe and student video gaming club president Jesse Wang persuaded top campus officials, faculty and private backers to launch an eSports initiative, a natural extension of UCI’s renowned academic programs in computer science and computer game science and its reputation as a leading school for gamers.

“Our job is to set the curve,” Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Thomas Parham said Friday to a happily screaming throng outside the arena. “I want everybody in the country chasing us.”

Earlier, Rebecca Black, associate professor of informatics, said that parents and other skeptics should set aside any notions that computer gaming is a waste of time, because it can yield key life skills and good-paying jobs.

“Video games often get a bad rap,” she said, “but research increasingly shows the positive impacts that games can have in science, medicine and education. UCI’s eSports initiative can foster team building, effective communication and critical thinking in nontraditional ways. These skills should serve students well for the rest of their lives.”

“League of Legends” players who are among the best in the world – and who met UCI’s rigorous admissions standards – were offered partial scholarships this summer to join the school’s inaugural varsity team. Campus club teams are already four-time national winners of gaming tournaments.

The eSports effort began just a year ago. Deppe, a student affairs director who was earning an MBA at night, studied the phenomenon for a final paper and realized it was exploding. Wang and other students, meanwhile, were dreaming of a high-end arena where they and others could play.

“We just announced the program in March, so it’s been a heck of a ride,” said a jubilant Wang, a fourth-year student who’s also arena coordinator.

UCI’s initiative mirrors the meteoric rise of the industry in the past few years. Video game revenues are approaching $98 billion annually, and the eSports business is on track to top $1 billion by 2020, analysts say. Live-streamed “League of Legends” matches draw millions of viewers worldwide – more than the final games of the NBA championship, the World Series and the PGA Masters Tournament, according to surveys.

“It’s No. 3 behind the Super Bowl and the World Cup, and there are a lot less head injuries,” joked Mike Williams, co-founder and CEO of Oomba, an eSports tournament management and live-streaming company based in Irvine.

Oomba paid for the webcasting studio inside the arena and last week announced that it will donate $100,000 a year for four years to defray scholarship and program costs.

“We love the fact that you guys are trendsetters,” Williams said. “There are other colleges now that are announcing scholarships, but UCI is at the forefront of that. Your arena is the best and looks absolutely great.”

No public funding is being used for the UCI program. iBUYPOWER, a gaming computer company based in the City of Industry, supplied sleek PCs emblazoned with the school logo and loaded with the most popular video games.

Darren Su, vice president of iBUYPOWER, predicted that UCI would become the eSports equivalent of college football’s No. 1 University of Alabama. “In a few years, you’ll see a March Madness of eSports, and UCI will hold the trophy,” he said.

Los Angeles-based Riot Games provided a premier “League of Legends” experience, featuring full champion unlock, 50 percent XP boost, 20 percent IP boost and more than 100 skins.

Friday’s grand opening celebration featured trivia contests, students dressed as video game heroes (such as Crystal Maiden from “Defense of the Ancients”) and an outdoor eSports expo where visitors could try on virtual reality headgear and a bone-rattling backpack that enables gamers to “feel explosions hitting you in the back.”

“This is ‘Revenge of the Nerds,’” said Jen Jen Chen, a pediatric pulmonologist and UCI faculty member who came to the event wearing a Viking helmet. “It’s about time.”

As attendees toured the new arena, snapped cellphone pictures and sat in custom gaming chairs, UCI’s inaugural eSports team members clustered in a corner of the room, test-driving the equipment after a week spent settling into campus digs and enrolling in classes.

One of the five players is Lyubomir Spasov, 23, aka BloodWater. Hailing from Bulgaria but now living in Fontana, his pre-UCI claim to fame was “stealing Baron with a rank one Janna tornado.” In “League of Legends” lingo, that’s roughly equivalent to swiping a basketball mid-slam dunk, then spinning around and launching it into the hoop at the other end of the court, Wang said.

Shortly after that feat, Spasov vanished from sight. In June, The Daily Dot referred to him as “one of the best ‘League of Legends’ players who retired too young.”

Not quite.Spasov was driving to class at Chaffey College when a friend texted him about UCI’s new program for academically qualified gamers, which helps cover tuition and lets Anteater players keep any winnings they earn from matches.

Selected for one of five scholarships, he praised UCI for giving eSports aces “the opportunity to study what they love and to continue their passion for competitive gaming.”

The other players include Youngbin Chung, 22, of Seoul, South Korea, for Mid Lane; James Lattman, 21, of Hacienda Heights and Parsa Baghai (aka Frostalicious), 20, of Mission Viejo for AD Carry; and Loc Tran, 21, of San Jose for Jungle.

“We’re really excited to show what we can do,” Tran said.

Kathy Chiang, who graduated from UCI in June with a computer science degree and was hired as arena coordinator, said the dilemma for professional video gamers currently is that they can either work the tournament circuit or seek a degree. After a few years of all-consuming play, they can be left with nothing.

“Right now, there’s really no good option to do both,” Chiang said. “That’s why people are so excited about the UCI program, because it offers that opportunity.”

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