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UBC: The birth of a collegiate esports dynasty

The University of British Columbia houses one of the largest and most successful collegiate esports clubs in the world. With nearly 1,000 formally registered students, UBC’s esports club boasts impressive social and varsity teams. One of the earliest adopters of a collegiate esports club, founded in November 2010, the UBC eSports Association has secured North American Championship victories in Starcraft, League of Legends, Dota 2 and Hearthstone — including three in the 2015/2016 season alone.

At DreamHack Austin, UBC took home titles in both Dota 2 and Hearthstone, collecting $10,000 worth of scholarship money in the process.

“Coming into it, it was really hard to organize scrims, and there isn’t much organized group where we can find each other and scrim. It’s more like adding each other on Steam and asking, ‘hey can you make this time?’ We pub a lot together and do a lot of ranked queues and stuff,” Dota 2 manager Vivian Chung said. “In terms of prep, we always check out what our opponents are playing and look at their recent games and do dotabuff tracking.”

While professional level teams have no trouble finding practice partners, the story is a little different for collegiate teams. With less formal practice and preparation tactics, collegiate success is based more on raw skill than professional play. Michigan was the heavy favorite headed into the finals at DreamhHack thanks to its undefeated record during the season. That didn’t phase UBC, managed to play its best under pressure to take home the title.

The preparation woes weren’t limited to team games this time around, as Hearthstone released an update just a few weeks ahead of the Collegiate Starleague finals at DreamHack.

“It was standard format so everything was new. It was really hard to prep for it,” said Benton “itzBolt” Chan, manager and team captain of UBC Hearthstone. “For the playoffs I did a lot of preparations. I spent a couple hours researching my opponents to see what they played, but with the new format everyone just plays different decks so it is hard to research.”

Not to be outdone, the UBC League of Legends team played two weeks earlier at PAX East and emerged victorious for the second straight year in a row at Riot Games’ uLoL Championships. UBC reached the finals where it played against Robert Morris University —  a team making headlines for the past year as the first collegiate institution to offer scholarships to esports athletes. UBC was able to defeat the recruited talent at RMU 3-1 in the final series, securing $180,000 in scholarships.

“There are a couple graduating and there are a couple people moving schools and a couple people who are just retiring because they have been on the team for five years and they are burnt out. Next year is going to be most likely a complete new roster,” Chung said about next year’s League of Legends team.

While a three-peat seems unlikely for the Thunderbirds with more and more schools announcing their entry into collegiate esports, if any Canadian team had hopes of returning to the uLoL finals it would be UBC.

With such a large amount of success, it would make sense that UBC would be interested in fostering its talent with financial support akin to it’s American brethren at RMU and Maryville. But that isn’t the case.

“Our school takes pride in it’s history and 100 years of excellence and they are kind of stuck in their ways. Not very open minded,” Chung said. “I think it is just the goals of a varsity team don’t exactly align with what our club has in mind. We had an opportunity, but it wasn’t something that we wanted, so we are still looking to negotiate something better.”

Chan added: “We have tried. Not me personally but our president and also Carmen have spoken to (the dean and athletic director) before. It hasn’t really worked out.”

As many colleges and universities across North America continue to add esports programs to their repertoire, they can only dream of having the local talent that Vancouver does. Vancouver was home to some of the greatest professional esports players in the world, including Dota players Artour “Arteezy” Babaev and Kurtis “Aui_2000” Ling — the latter of whom started his professional career playing StarCraft 2 at the University of British Columbia. With such an amazing pool of talent, it is no wonder the UBC Esports Association has close to 1,000 members.

With the rapid expansion of collegiate esports programs across North America, it will only be a matter of time before the University of British Columbia realizes the gold mine it is sitting on and joins the realm of scholarship-wielding schools.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games. Remixed by Blake Bottrill.


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