Interview: Mark Deppe, Acting Director of UCI Esports

In the heart of Orange County, six miles from Blizzard Entertainment headquarters, is one of the few official college e-sports programs. University of California Irvine is home to this unique collection of college scholarships, though they expect other schools to offer similar programs in the near future.

2015 was the inaugural year for the e-sports scholarship program at UCI, and it's been welcomed by the University and the Orange County community. Prospective students are offered the opportunity of earning scholarships to UCI through Overwatch and League of Legends, similar to the sports-based models of traditional scholarships. 

But that’s really only half the story with the e-sports program at UCI. It’s more than just scholarships; it’s education, research, community building, and entertainment. Other programs at the university have paired with the e-sports scholarship to conduct research projects using gamers as subjects. There are weekly tours of the arena with local middle and high school classes, and the program helps support many of the campus gaming clubs, like Super Smash Bros. Melee and Heroes of the Storm.

Even if you’re not planning on playing competitive games, you can still use the e-sports arena. The space is not just a home for their scholarship players, but a full PC café consisting of 72 top-of-the-line computers that you can use for $4/hour or $36/10hours, along with multiple TVs on which to play console games.

To get more insight into this unique and ambitious program, I spoke with UCI Esports Acting Director, Mark Deppe.

GameCrate: What exactly does your job as Acting Director of the UCI Esports program entail?

Mark Deppe: I oversee all things e-sports related. We have the four pillars of our program: Competition, Academics & Research, Community, and Entertainment. I try to advance all of our efforts along those four lines as I oversee everything we do.

GC: What’s the goal of the program here at UCI?

MD: The goal is to be the #1 place for people who love games. If you want to compete, study them, participate in the ecosystem, go into entertainment, or go on to the industry—we want to be the best place for that. We want to get UCI students to be excited to be a UCI student because they could cheer for their favorite competitors, and just be part of this growing world.

GC: So it’s not just e-sports, it’s everything in the gaming world that you want to be the leader for?

MD: Yeah, we do. We want to lead the conversations, host the talks and discussions about e-sports, advance what the world knows about games, and overall just be a mecca for gamers.

GC: Do you use this gaming center to help educate students about things like leadership, teamwork, and strategy?

MD: If you look at the scholarship teams we discuss holistically about how to be a great team. Earlier today our team was being taught by our personal trainer about wrist health and fatigue. We’re also looking at mental & physical health. We have a team psychologist and we talk about leadership a lot. We’re interested in advancing how players play and trying to optimize the elite gamer.

GC: What about the non-elite gamer? You mentioned your professional teams have trainers, but are you also trying to educate the semi-competitive or even casual players?

MD: We don’t have as close a relationship with those people. We’ve only been around for about a year and we’ve already had 6000 accounts created in the arena here. I think it’s more of just showing off our values and priorities on social media and through actions, but we don’t get to engage with them on the same level as we do with our scholarship players.

But we have our code of conduct on the wall that talks about what we expect from the players. We welcome people from all backgrounds and want to be an inclusive space for everybody.

Do we talk about leadership with the average player? No, we don’t. But we do hold them to a high standard.

GC: How do you regulate things in the arena?

MD: We have two student staff, two other full-time staff, an arena coordinator, a high school league coordinator, and me. We’re listening to what people are saying, and we monitor what they’re doing on the computers through the software we have to have on them. It’s more just walking around and engaging with someone when we see something that we deem problematic.

GC: You mentioned to me earlier that you’ve just gotten some shoutcasting equipment. Is this something you’re going to be doing in the future? Training people to be shoutcasters and observers? Is that part of what you can see this program doing?

MD: As part of our entertainment pillar we know that people are watching an insane amount of e-sports content, and we want to be able to generate some of that and train people for those jobs. There’s no other school that’s offering that right now.

We’re working with Twitch and other partners to bring in elite shoutcasters to teach our people how to do it, and then it’s a combination of training and throwing people into the fire. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback on the little shoutcasting we’ve done and we’re trying to raise the bar really quickly.

GC: It’s definitely not an easy thing to do.

MD: No, it isn’t, and Twitch chat is a vicious place. People get immediate feedback, and there’s a desire to make sure our shoutcasting is matching the quality of our gameplay.

GC: At the moment you sponsor Overwatch and League of Legends. What determines what game you’ll sponsor?

MD: We’re a new program so we’re coming up with our criteria on the fly. First of all, it has to be a popular game here at UCI. When we built this program, we did a survey of the campus to see what was most popular. League of Legends was the number one game. So, we offered that for our scholarship program in our first year.

It has to do with popularity, both on campus and off. It has a lot to do with our talent base. Our teams back in the day were very good at LoL in the national collegiate competition. We won back to back to back national titles. We have really good players here already, so it made a lot of sense.

There also has to be a good collegiate league to play in, too. Riot Games does a great job with their collegiate circuit: College League of Legends this year, and UOL last year, and NACC before that. So, it has evolved, but as long as there is a great collegiate tournament we’re good.

It also has to be built for e-sports. There has to be a spectator client, streaming tools, and a way to broadcast it. Those are the things we look at, and as we started our second year of the program Overwatch was a thriving game, our team had been ranked number 1 in the prior year—they had gone to the playoffs—and we had a lot of talent for Overwatch. Given that Blizzard is five miles down the street and there’s a big growing community with lots of professional support we thought that it was a no brainer for a second game.

GC: What would cause you to support another game? How would you choose that game?

MD: One we have to have the resources to do it: scholarship money, coaches, and the time to set all of that up. We definitely want to add more games in the future. Games that we see a strong support for out there.

Counter-Strike if the university was comfortable with the real-life gun violence. I know that’s a huge sticking point for them right now and there’s concerns around that. Rocket League is really interesting in that it’s a new genre—an exciting, new way to play a team e-sport. We have a really great Smash Melee team here and it would be great to give them some support.

Heroes of the Storm is a MOBA, and while we already have a MOBA with League of Legends, Heroes of the Dorm might be the biggest collegiate production out there. Those are the things that are on my immediate radar, but the goal would be to offer more games and more scholarship money.

GC: You mentioned Heroes of the Dorm and the UCI team went to the round of 4. That’s a big accomplishment for a college team. How do they fit into this whole picture?

MD: We offer scholarships for the two teams (Overwatch and LoL), but we also offer support for our other club teams as much as we can. It might mean jerseys when they go to live finals and they always get practice time in the arena. We’re trying to elevate their efforts and support them—I traveled with our Heroes team to Vegas last year to support them. It’s about doing as much as we can with the few resources we have for the club teams, and then looking to grow those resources at the same time.

We’re trying to be very flexible, too. Some of our Heroes players are on scholarships for another game, so we allow them to be practicing in the background and then when Heroes of the Dorm season comes around we’ll ramp up their participation.

GC: How does the funding for these scholarships compare with funding for other things at UCI?

MD: Initially our vision was to offer half in-state tuition for our scholarships. So, League of Legends players are getting $5610 per year per player. They obviously have potential to earn more scholarship money if they do well in collegiate tournaments.

GC: Performance incentives.

MD: Yeah, and then when we started Overwatch we decided to offer smaller scholarships. Most of the students for Overwatch were already here, and the point of scholarships is to get people to come to your university. It’s an evolving thought process on how we want to do that.

One of the things that players are considering when debating on whether or not to come to UCI is the professional opportunities out there. I think we need to continually evaluate how we stack up against the professional e-sports opportunities. Maybe we need to ramp up scholarships, or just think of ways to demonstrate the value of a college education to those players who are thinking about going pro.

GC: What’s UCI’s engagement with you? Do you have their full support, or is this more of a trial?

MD: It’s both. I feel a tremendous amount of support. Since we launched the program administrators continue to see buzz around e-sports and they read the articles. They are excited that we have one of the top programs out there. I’m excited for the future and I believe there will be more resources along with more engagement from the university.

GC: Now how do you actually determine who gets a scholarship? What are your criteria?

MD: The way we created both of our teams was to initially have an online forum where they would express their interest and show their online gamer profile. We have a minimum threshold for each game—Diamond 1 for League of Legends or Masters/Grandmasters for Overwatch—to allow you the opportunity to try out. Then we have a coach who is an expert in the game who has played competitively and understands what a good player looks like. They grade you on in-game play and communication—make sure we have a player for each role and you’re able to play all the champions for that role.

In addition, we have to know that players are going to be supportive players. We have to know that they’re not going to be toxic players that are going to bring down the team. Those are all the things the coach and I discuss as we build a roster.

GC: College students are generally 18-23 years old. Professional gamers are generally 15-23. You have a big overlap—how do you reconcile that?

MD: The way I view it is that if you’re an elite gamer and you want to go pro you should pursue that opportunity. We really want people in our program that want a college degree and be a student here at UCI. In our scholarship agreement we ask that the students commit to at least a year before pursuing any professional opportunity.

It would be really detrimental to the team to lose a great player mid-season. It actually happened to us last year during playoffs. We had a player go to Team Liquid for League of Legends and it clearly had an effect.

I don’t think there’s going to be a linear path from high school to college to professional like in traditional sports. I think some people will just go straight to being a pro, maybe stay there and then become a popular and successful streamer. Others may not achieve the success they want and look at collegiate as an opportunity to get their degree while also playing a game they love. And some people may just want to go to college even though they have the skills to be a professional player. I think it will be a combination of all of those things.

GC: So, it’s more than just “I’m coming to UCI to become a pro gamer”—it’s more like “I’m coming to UCI to be a semi-pro gamer in order to fund my college education.”

MD: I think that’s a way better way to look at it. It’s a way to do something you’re passionate about and make a degree cheaper at the same time.

GC: You mentioned to me that you partner with other programs and departments here at UCI. Talk to me about that, because that’s a unique opportunity that probably doesn’t exist anywhere else.

MD: We were challenged when getting this program up and running to really align with UCI’s academic mission. So, we fund undergraduate research. Students can apply to get a grant to study something in the gaming or e-sports fields.

We love partnering with faculty because it aligns with what UCI is built to do, which is unraveling the mysteries of the world. If we can do that with games or e-sports and lead the conversations around that, it’s a really exciting and great opportunity for us.

We have dozens of faculty at UCI who specialize in games from across the board, whether it’s law, humanities, computer science, neuroscience—people are studying it in all kinds of ways. We look forward to partnering with them and having the ability to generate the data for them—having the space for them to do their research, and having a casual and elite gaming community to study. It really helps everyone to partner with others on campus.

GC: Let’s move onto your inclusivity plan. You cited T.L. Taylor (an e-sports scholar who studies gender discrepancies and toxic culture in gaming) in your plan saying that there is a lot of toxicity toward non-male non-white players. Looking at the professional scene it seems non-white isn’t really a problem.

MD: This is definitely not my expertise, but I will speculate that generally the majorities tend to discriminate against the minorities. That’s a human condition, I think.

GC: So, it’s more of a general thought rather than specific to e-sports?

MD: Yeah, I don’t think toxicity towards women is unique to e-sports—if you look at the entertainment industry or politics you can see it happening right now. This is a human problem and it emerges over and over in different areas. It happens in e-sports now, and so we have an opportunity to engage with it. Definitely there is a perception that it is mostly males that play games, so women have been harassed and kind of marginalized both online and in games.

Our efforts are really to highlight the great people that are out there that don’t represent the stereotypical gamer—the non-white, non-male, and even non-Asian—and say, look, there are all these different kinds of people playing and loving these games. They all have value to add, and we want to have everyone welcomed and to be part of that.

That’s something we’re very interested in doing. UCI has this inclusive excellence mission and this core belief that everyone should be able to participate, which helped inspire our inclusivity plan in the first place.

GC: Now I understand that goal at the community level, but at the professional level do you think things need to change?

MD: There’s a lot of debate on whether or not you should force it at the top level. Should you have all male teams or all female teams? Or, if you look at it as more of a pipeline issue where you try to build young talent that will eventually trickle up into the professional scene.

From what we hear from the community—the gaming community wants the best players to be on that stage. The best players should be behind the mouse and keyboard. Right now, those people are mostly Asian and white males. Our plan is really to help build that young talent pipeline. Showing young people not yet in the scene that it is an option for them.

GC: Talk about the girl’s summer camp. What did it entail and how did it go?

MD: We had a girl’s summer camp for high school girls this past summer to show high school girls all the different ways to get involved with e-sports. We’re very interested in the pipeline issue. We think that’s the right way to tackle it, which is to get the talent level elevated among all groups, and that way everyone can compete.

Our target was to have twenty girls, and seventeen actually showed up. While our target was juniors and seniors in high school, we had a couple in college and a couple in middle school show up. It was a bit broader of an age range than we had planned, but we had a great group of counselors from UCI—combination of scholarship players and student staff.

The goal was to create a network and a support system for a cohort of young female gamers who wanted to learn about the industry. Whether it was how to play at a high level, how to stream, shoutcast, self-branding, game development—so we had all these great role models come in and share their experiences. I think it was a huge success. We had really great results from our surveys—people felt they learned a lot and grew a lot. Now we have a great group of young ladies in the area that we can call upon to work on various projects with like the high school league that’s currently being developed.

We were really happy with how it turned out and are looking forward to doing it again. In addition, we’re looking to expand it to other underrepresented communities in the future.

GC: Your inclusivity plan mentions a Women’s Tournament Series, yet you were unsure of the efficacy of it. Talk about the problems you see with women only tournaments.

MD: Well I don’t see a problem with women only tournaments. I think it’s a good strategy, especially at the younger ages. When you look at the highest levels you’ve seen bad examples like Team Siren that was really hyped and when they were put in the spotlight they didn’t do as well as everyone was led to believe.

GC: Not to mention the huge backlash.

MD: It was an enormous backlash. I think it set girl only teams back quite a bit. But I do think there is definitely room for it at the elementary, middle, or even the high school level. The challenge I see is that if you do it today it will immediately be seen as less than the all male teams. I think it sets women up to be perceived as less than males. That’s the challenge in my personal view.

There’s no easy answer how to do it. If you ask Google how to get women in STEM education you don’t get a definitive answer. Again, these aren’t new problems exclusive to e-sports, these are societal issues. We’re trying to tackle it where we are, but it’s more about building that great pipeline.

GC: Where do you see this program in 5 years?

MD: I really want this program to grow. I’d love for e-sports programs to mimic what you see in athletic departments currently. More resources, more coaches, more players, more facilities—the ability to keep meeting people’s desire for competition.

E-sports is going to be the future of competition—It’s a way to compete that uses the technology we’ve developed in the last 10 years—the internet and communications tools. You can compete against anyone you want wherever they are. And you get mashed up against people your ability level so it’s a fair competition. There’s no referee to mess up calls, either.

People will be competing through some sort of digital interface, and I’d like to have a program that is able to meet the demands of the growing industry.

Visit the official UCI Esports page for more information about the program. 

Interview photos courtesy UCI Esports.