UC Irvine sets sights on Overwatch championship and future pro success

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Selectt makes most of varsity esports shot at UC Irvine (4:12)

The Anteaters support discusses a heartbreaking loss at Tespa in 2017 and how he became a scholarship gamer. (4:12)

University of California-Irvine esports manager Matt Akhavan stops studying for a psychology test and turns to his off-tank, Aaron "Lionpoke" Boyer.

"They released the Berkeley video," Akhavan says.

Player and manager watch together on Akhavan's laptop, as main tank Nick "Learntooplay" Theodorakis offers occasional commentary from two seats down. The Fiesta Bowl Overwatch Collegiate National Championship is just a few days away, and Tespa, the tournament organizer, just posted its promotional video for the league's reigning champion, UC Berkeley, known commonly in the traditional sports world as Cal.

The Cal players declare they are the only group with the potential to take out UCI, which is 16-0 this season heading into the semifinals at Arizona State in Tempe, Arizona. Cal might rule in football and other traditional sports, but UCI is the premier California esports school and provides scholarships to its players to boot. The Anteaters have their own arena, staff, nutritionists and more, just like your average Power 5 football program.

In the rows of computers in front of them, a Russian student yells as his own Overwatch team fails to take a crucial point. Loud and rapid Mandarin can be heard from another corner, next to a structural column decorated with a large Project Zed image and a smaller Symmetra sticker. A smattering of Korean occasionally rises above the din, as does Portuguese. No fewer than four languages can be heard at any given time throughout the UCI Esports Arena, which doubles as a PC bang for any UCI student, with space for the university's Overwatch and League of Legends teams set aside in the far-right corner.

As the video finishes, Akhavan and Lionpoke discuss their upcoming tournament chances, along with recent Overwatch League roster moves. UCI Esports program director Mark Deppe appears behind the two, leaning between the blue and yellow headrests of their UCI Esports-branded gaming chairs.

UCI is the heavy favorite going into this weekend. The Anteaters have already beaten all three of the other Overwatch teams that remain in the tournament, but they still have a chip on their shoulders. Last year, UCI was undefeated going into the playoffs, too -- and it wound up losing to UC San Diego and being eliminated well before the finals.

This year, the team is determined to end things on its terms, with a title and an unbeaten record. Deppe, who helped build this program in the heart of the professional esports mecca of the U.S., has assembled a team with talent that matches its aspirations.

"Twenty million dollars," Deppe says.

"I wouldn't sell you guys for anything less. Twenty million dollars for the whole team to Overwatch League -- if you win."

All three burst into laughter.

With Overwatch esports leagues still in their infancy, especially when compared to the legacy of Blizzard Entertainment's Starcraft or even Riot Games' League of Legends, the idea of a professional Overwatch organization picking up the entire side of a collegiate team is comical.

"I don't think we're expected to go pro after, but to a lot of other people from traditional sports, they think it's the same," Learntooplay says. "It's completely different. With video games, everyone who is trying to get to the pro level is putting in all this time that collegiate players don't have. We have school, maybe some of us are working, just a ton of stuff that makes it a lot more difficult to get to the pro scene."

The "path to pro" is a phrase often repeated across various esports, especially in those with leagues such as League of Legends and Overwatch. Traditional sports have storied programs already in place, like USC in football or UCLA in basketball, places that have a history of sending West Coast kids to the pros after they finish their degrees -- or, in many cases, beforehand.

At the university level, conventional sports offer athletes structure, stability and an environment for rapid growth and maturation, with a year or more of preparation for their shot at the pros. But for college Overwatch competitors, there is no draft. The first wave of Overwatch League roster announcements was filled with acquisitions of entire South Korean teams and players who had already seen success in either OnGameNet's Apex tournament or the Overwatch Contenders Series in North America and Europe.

In 2018, the college scene, varsity or not, isn't a pipeline to pro play, but UCI boasts many of the benefits that traditional sports powerhouses provide their stars. It's a step toward bridging the gap, giving collegiate players an environment to hone their skills far better than slouching in a hard dorm room chair over a subpar monitor and peripherals.

And there are perks off-campus, too. The UCI and UC San Diego squads, which will face each other Saturday afternoon in the first semifinal for Tespa, were both invited to test out the Overwatch League equipment at Blizzard Arena in Burbank before a single match was played. Learntooplay admits that after that experience, he and a lot of his teammates felt a deeper connection to the pro scene.

"After the Overwatch League experience I'd say almost all of us [want to play professionally]," Learntooplay says. "It was so cool, and it became something that was really appealing to us."

Learntooplay says the Los Angeles Valiant became his favorite team after the Valiant reached out to the UCI team and the school itself through staff introductions and viewing parties. For Lionpoke, sharing events with the Valiant and talking to the pro team's sports psychologist was a good experience, but what he and his teammates hope for most -- turning those interactions into a pro roster spot -- hasn't happened yet.

"It's to be expected," he says. "First of all, OWL is so new; collegiate is still collegiate. It's helping, it's nice to have the connection, but it's not a perfect connection yet."

Both Riot Games and Blizzard have publicly announced intentions to not only expand collegiate programs but streamline the road from amateur ladder player to professional at the higher levels of competition in the League Championship Series or Overwatch League. Despite making strides, there is still a discernible gap between the Overwatch competitive ladder and Blizzard's stage in Burbank. Being recognized in ranked play or at the semi-pro level is a far more effective way of getting noticed than college competition at most schools.

"In a traditional sport, you're either really good and you transition instantly into going pro or you make a name for yourself in college, you have tryouts and all that stuff; there's an actual process," Lionpoke says. "The collegiate side, as of now, isn't respected enough by the pros to be looked at as a viable option of recruitment."

An avid athlete, Lionpoke has played multiple sports including baseball, football, swimming and water polo before his initial foray into competitive gaming with League of Legends and later Overwatch. In all those activities, including Overwatch, he has flirted with the idea of becoming a professional.

"If the offer presented itself, I would not turn it down," the senior pharmaceutical science student says. "I'm a very competitive person especially when it comes to sports or esports."

Learntooplay, who has been on a semi-professional team before, is less measured and much more enthusiastic. He has tailored his class schedule to make extra time for Overwatch, and he plays almost constantly when the team is not scrimming or competing.

"I would love to become a pro player," he says.

Throughout the afternoon, between classes and studying for midterms, players from the UCI Overwatch and League of Legends teams trickle in and out of the esports arena, not unlike a traditional sports club or NCAA-sanctioned team. UCI is also in a unique position when it comes to finding scrim partners. The team can find better scrims against semi-pro teams due to UCI's strong performances in non-collegiate events.

"When it comes to collegiate in general, I think most of it is the college playing to their strengths," Lionpoke says. "They don't always play what is the best to play, but it's whatever they can play the best because of the players they have."

The players UCI has make it the odds-on favorite in Arizona this weekend. Both Lionpoke and Learntooplay recognize that within the collegiate landscape, the opportunities at UCI -- the arena, overhead support, sponsorships and scholastic research -- are rare. The program gives them a head start over other collegiate Overwatch players.

"The program, it's not just about going pro, it's about preparing us for whatever," Learntooplay says. "After we're done here, Mark wants to make sure we have connections and everything we need to succeed after our career and after school. He helps us out a lot."