Sunny Yen had just been dismissed from UCLA, and he felt like a wall had come crashing down on him.
He’d been going through a rough patch. Yen’s mother and father were living separately, and he believed by studying at UCLA, far from his mother in Canada, he wasn’t giving her the support she needed. While worrying about his family situation, his grades suffered. The university dismissed him during his freshman year because of his low GPA.
“I was in that hole,” he said. “Nothing (was) working out and (I’d) just been dismissed from my dream school.”
Yen was born in Taiwan, but his mother didn’t get along with his father’s family, so he moved with her to Canada, leaving his father behind. However, moving away didn’t solve all their problems – even while he was attending UCLA, weekly phone calls with his mother were filled with updates on her disputes with family members.
“In a traditional Taiwanese family, it’s very money-based,” Yen said. “My mother didn’t want her children to grow up in a toxic environment like that.”
Yen tried to play video games to escape from his family troubles, but his parents forbade him from playing them at home. He would still sneak into the virtual worlds of “Call of Duty” and “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” whenever he could, especially when he was hanging out with friends. Now, Yen is back at UCLA as a fifth-year sociology student, and continues to rely on video games, specifically “League of Legends,” as a coping mechanism.
“Gaming in general has helped me get my life back together and gave me enough time to get through that moment in my life,” he said. “A lot of people say gaming is an escape ... but for me, if I don’t have this escape, this is not going to end well.”
Yen is part of a community of gamers on campus who play video games competitively, spending hours every week perfecting their skills.
Like many gamers at UCLA, Yen started playing League after a friend introduced him to it in high school. He was amazed he could play with thousands of others online at the same time. The game made Yen feel like he was a part of something bigger.
“I think before ‘League of Legends,’ the technology simply wasn’t there for huge multiplayer games,” he said. “For me (the game) was just like storytelling.”
League is played in teams of five and each team member controls a particular character. The goal for each team is to destroy the other team’s nexus, which is usually located deep within enemy territory.
Although Yen wasn’t very good when he first picked up League, he spent so much time on the game – too much time, if you ask him – that he became a relatively highly ranked player.
When he first came to UCLA in 2013, Yen looked for a League team to play on. He’d played on hockey and basketball teams growing up, and wanted to recreate the same sense of camaraderie.
“I enjoyed that team atmosphere,” he said. “We practice hard together, we suffer together, but it’s for a reason.”
But UCLA’s League team was limited to top players and there weren’t any junior varsity teams. So in 2016, he joined the Association of UCLA Gamers, which at the time was the umbrella organization for gaming clubs on campus. Yen also successfully lobbied for a junior varsity team for “League of Legends.”
However, Yen felt the association focused too much on casual gaming and not enough on competitive gaming. By the middle of the 2016-2017 academic year, the club had stopped being active altogether.
Over the summer, Yen made the decision to help found Esports at UCLA, an organization dedicated to competitive gaming. The club fields teams in various games, from League to “StarCraft.” Volunteers work to make the teams competitive; coaches run practices, analysts break down teams’ strengths and weaknesses, and writers recap notable matches.
Yen acknowledges UCLA has a long way to go if it wants to be competitive in college esports. Gaming powerhouses such as UC Irvine, which provide scholarships and dedicated facilities for competitive gamers, regularly top the rankings in various esports tournaments.
“It’s a shame. A lot of the gaming clubs had died out and not really built the community you need to be successful,” Yen said. “The mentality had always been ‘Our teams suck, we never make it past the first round.’”
Austin Quon, a second-year financial actuarial mathematics student, leads UCLA’s “League of Legends” A team. Quon said he is so obsessed with League that he wrote in his college application essay about how playing the game helped improve his social and teamwork skills. He believes Esports at UCLA provides the gaming community on campus with the organized structure it previously lacked under the Association of UCLA Gamers. He hopes if the teams become more successful in future tournaments, the university will recognize the esports culture on campus and provide funding for it.
UCLA’s League A team is in the top 20 for League’s West Region college circuit, with its members ranking among the top 0.5 percent of League players across North America. Teams who win in the college circuit can receive thousands of dollars in scholarships – players in first-place teams win $8,000 each – as well as bragging rights.
As the League A team’s manager, Quon helped select players to join the team. Quon recruited second-year computational mathematics student Curtis Xuan over the summer. They never actually met in person until a few weeks after Xuan joined the League team last year, because League matches are played remotely and teams correspond through audio communications built into the game.
“One time I was walking down Bruin Walk and I heard a voice behind, and I’m like ‘This voice sounds very familiar,’ and it was (Quon),” Xuan said. “I turn around and say, ‘Austin?’ and he says, ‘Who are you?’ and I’m like ‘It’s Curtis!’ and that was the first time I met him in person.” Quon said the team has a good rapport, although he admits that as one of the more talkative people on the team, he tends to hog the audio communications in games. While he usually calls the shots, his calls haven’t always been perfect.
During an early match, Quon was convinced one of the opposing team’s players wouldn’t use a special power she had, and urged his team to move forward. He ended up leading them into a trap.
“Within three seconds, the whole team gets blown up,” he said. “The comms just get silent.”
Mustafa Arsiwala, the team’s coach, said the League A team scrimmages with other schools twice a week, with each match lasting two to three hours. He and team analyst Jason Zhao, a first-year mathematics student, go over the recorded footage play by play to point out mistakes or lost opportunities.
Although most members of the team did not know each other beforehand, Arsiwala, a fourth-year psychobiology student, said they have begun hanging out outside matches and getting dinner together.
“If you look at our team GroupMe, there’s over 300 messages a day,” he said.
Most of the League A team players at UCLA have no intention of going pro. However, like with any extracurricular, they have to balance their time between academics and League commitments, often despite the disapproval of their family and friends.
Xuan’s girlfriend complains he spends more time playing League than being with her, and often isn’t able to accommodate her in his schedule.
“She tells me ‘You’re always playing League,’” he said. “But I don’t know, I try to balance my time.”
One day, Yen hopes to help UCLA become as strong in competitive video gaming as it is in traditional sports. As esports becomes more mainstream, Yen believes the university may support competitive gamers to improve its reputation.
“UCLA likes to hold up that it has a super high number of NCAA champions,” he said. “But audience numbers for video game finals can be in the millions.”
Esports isn’t just limited to college teams and players. Competitive video gaming is now a multimillion-dollar industry with major game makers, such as Blizzard Entertainment, building large centers dedicated to the sport.
The Blizzard Arena in Burbank, which opened in 2017 and seats 450 spectators, hosts competitive players of “Overwatch,” a multiplayer shooter game. The players are center stage, their eyes glued to their screens. Behind them, a smart wall displays the game in real time. Webcams in their computers provide close-up face shots as they play, giving audience members a more personal look at the competition. Much like typical sports stadiums, Blizzard Arena has concession stands and a souvenir store where fans can purchase team jerseys and other Overwatch-themed items.
“Overwatch” is played by two teams of six, with one team tasked with moving a payload from one end of a course to another, while the other team works to prevent them from accomplishing their task.
The arena is home to the Overwatch League, a professional game circuit that debuted in January 2018. The league features 12 teams, each representing a different city. Although all the teams reside and play in the Los Angeles area, team names range from Seoul Dynasty and London Spitfire, to Los Angeles Gladiators and San Francisco Shock.
UCLA hasn’t yet become a force in the college esports circuit, but several UCLA students have gone on to become big players in the professional video gaming scene.
Harsha Bandi, coach of San Francisco Shock, dropped out of UCLA last quarter to coach the team full time. Bandi, who had been pursuing a degree in geology, oversees team practices and prepares strategies for games.
Like many of his friends, Bandi grew up playing games. He said he has also always been obsessed with esports, contributing to niche gaming blogs by providing commentary on games in the professional scene. He became recognized as an expert for his commentary on blogs and videos, and when Blizzard Entertainment was putting together the Overwatch League in November, Bandi was asked to join.
“Personally, I don’t like the thought of attending a day job, just doing stuff I don’t really care about,” he said.
Fortunately for Bandi, he receives competitive benefits to do something he loves – salaries for members of competitive teams start at $50,000, and players are guaranteed housing and food. While some teams live in game houses, Bandi and the other Shock players live in the same apartment complex.
Personalities sometimes collide in gaming houses, Yen said, which helps explain why teams come together and break apart frequently in the competitive gaming scene.
“A lot of players come in super immature. They’ve never lived away from their family, and they’re young kids, like 16, 17,” he said. “Things are expected of them – huge expectations that you’re supposed to be a prodigy.”
Games in the league also feature professional commentators who, in ESPN fashion, assess teams’ strengths and weaknesses and provide live running commentary, which is also streamed online, at the stadium. During a recent game between the Houston Outlaws and the San Francisco Shock, commentators noted how Houston’s recent wins and strong players gave it an edge and placed San Francisco at a disadvantage.
Despite being a middle-of-the-table team, Bandi is confident the San Francisco team can make the playoffs. Because all the players on the team are so skilled, most of Bandi’s coaching has to do with strategy and countering opposing teams’ plays.
“Everyone is going to be able to play the game well, they’re all going to have the skills,” he said. “The main thing is how we outcompete the other team and avoid positional mistakes.”
Teams in the Overwatch League have dedicated fans. At a recent meet and greet in a sports bar in Burbank following a game, players in the Los Angeles Gladiators signed autographs and met fans decked out in purple team jerseys.
One attendee, Jonathan Palacios, a former student at Mt. San Antonio College, drove all the way from Covina, California, to meet the players in person. Palacios had little interest in esports until he discovered the Overwatch League online and pledged his loyalty to the Gladiators.
“They’re so real and genuine, and easy to connect to,” he said. “They’re great guys.”
Competitive video gaming may be exploding in popularity, but it is still far from being a widely accepted career path.
Bandi’s family was not happy when he told them he had dropped out of college to pursue his dream of being an esports coach. They wanted him to work in the Texas oil industry.
But Bandi used to skip classes to play games or watch recordings of tournaments, and instead of pursuing a typical 9-to-5 job, going professional felt like the right thing for him to do.
“It took lots of conversations to convince them that this is what I want to do,” he said.
Although Yen spends hours every week managing the various teams under Esports at UCLA and plans to pursue a career in competitive video gaming, he still hasn’t told his mother about what he does. However, he has been able to bond with his father, whom he wasn’t really in touch with, over his interest in esports. The two enjoy discussing their favorite teams and the viability of the esports industry.
“My dad had heard about how successful a team in Taiwan had been and he asked if this is what I wanted to do,” Yen said. “I think he respects my decision.”
Even though pursuing a career in esports is a difficult, unpredictable path, Yen always keeps in mind how video games have helped him deal with his personal problems. He hopes they continue to help others as well.
“At the end of the day, it is just what I want to do because of that episode in my life,” he said. “But I’m here now. I have a wonderful team, a wonderful group of friends. It’s just so amazing.”