The end of Spring 2020 marked the second year since the founding of the Esports Union program, USC’s official attempt at consolidating the still disparate esports community at USC. Despite its success in large events and a wider array of varsity teams, it still struggles in building a sustainable community, highlighted by tensions between a group of esports-minded students and the USC Games administration.

USC’s philosophy toward esports comes in contrast to the likes of rival school UCLA, which adopted a program created by grassroots student organizations, not the other way around. Students view the USC program as more of a top-down approach, and some students in leadership positions from the League of Legends (LoL) community feel that their stake in clubs and programs is met by disorganization from USC faculty and staff who lack similar esports expertise. These tensions arise during a pivotal moment for a growing esports scene that’s only getting bigger due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

The rise of Summoner’s School, a now popular, amateur USC LoL club, was a result of some of these frustrations that included harassment allegations, and feelings of diminished ownership after a series of disputes with the administration. On the competitive side, members of the varsity team felt incensed by a stipend program with nebulous timelines and delays.

USC’s official response to the allegations in this story cited legal issues that prevented detailed rebuttals and suggested that some of the events could have been misunderstandings as a fledgling organization got off the ground.

Jim Huntley is an adjunct professor and the faculty member in charge of the USC Esports Union (ESU), the latest attempt from the USC Games school, a joint venture between the School of Cinematic Arts and Viterbi School of Engineering, to bring competitive esports under the same banner. He declined to comment on any of the complaints and accusations made in this story, though Kristin Borella, a spokesperson for the USC Games school, issued statements regarding the topics discussed. One of which referenced the model for ESU.

“The Esports Union program – including the Esports Union teams – is primarily student-run, so the students are largely responsible for their activities, organization, and governance. Faculty oversight of the team — as with other student organizations — is limited to securing funding and support, maintaining a degree of professionalism and ensuring the team remains inclusive.”

It’s a statement that runs into conflict with the perceptions held by several students in the following accounts. Where they were frustrated by individual instances of communication falling short, the crux of their concern stems from a feeling of limited control and a lack of transparency that diminishes the stake in what students believe to be their own programs.

The origins of Summoner’s School.

Before Summoner’s School came USC Legends, a pilot program of the budding ESU. Its creation was marred by harassment allegations, ideological differences and transparency issues that culminated in a group of students who no longer had interest in associating their organization with the ESU name.

Senior Lauren Shen founded the club when she was a freshman, alongside Amanda Fan, Dylan Dizon, Jay Lee and Kevin Huynh. They built a community amongst other students who wanted to create a space for competitive LoL, and received help from Huntley and Keanu Concepcion, a student worker who founded ESU and graduated in 2019.

The students quickly became disillusioned with their own stake in the organization. Shen said she felt as though their opinions weren’t being heard by an administration which had what she thought was a more primitive understanding of the world of esports.

“It was pretty evident that [Huntley] didn’t value our opinions, and we would talk about stuff and then he would immediately disagree with us. We haven’t worked in a corporate industry before, but I think we provided some pretty valuable insight,” said Shen.

One such instance of the mentioned transparency issues occurred before the 2018 Games Expo on May 9, right after the end of finals. According to Shen, there were plans to showcase the newly created LoL competitive team, a project she and the rest of the USC Legends group had been organizing and holding tryouts for during the spring semester. The newly picked LoL team was to appear at the event, and “players were requesting housing extensions and booking their flights around it,” said Shen. But the plan to showcase the players was eventually cancelled.

“The decision to not participate was made several weeks before the event as the students were not ready to participate as a team (based on roster, uniforms, and uncertainty about how well they would play together),” Borella said in the statement.

According to her, the decision was made “Prior to the distribution of the April 15th Expo 2018 press release, as the Esports news would have been incorporated into it. One can only assume that the ESU leadership communicated their decision to the team before or around that time.”

Other students don’t remember getting notified until soon before the event.

Jack Johnson was one of the students who tried out for the team, and was trying to plan his flight home before the last day of finals, but was told repeatedly that he was to stick around for the Expo on May 9. Then he said that “the plans fell through like a week before.”

Shen and other students in the USC Legends leadership also don’t remember being notified of the decision until a week before the event.

“They cancelled the team announcement a week before the Expo after people had already made flight plans to accommodate for this event,” said Shen.

Johnson was disappointed by the news, but was able to book another flight home. “I was super excited for the announcement and wanted that kind of validation and recognition,” he said.

The tryouts happened again in the fall, and one more time after the students in the USC Legends team quit and formed Summoner’s School, so students partook in three completely separate tryout processes for spots on the 2018 USC LoL team.

The USC Legends students also saw ambiguity in their established roles, another instance of their diminishing control over their creation. LoL was the only game represented in the ESU project, and because of this, the lines between USC Legends and ESU were blurred during the USC Legends students’ participation. Students like Shen and Dizon, the current president of Summoner’s School, were in charge of parts of USC Legends, but also ESU as a whole.

Dizon recalled Concepcion and Huntley as being the two figures at the top of the hierarchy, but “no one really understood what was underneath that. There were already problems with the infrastructure because no one really knew who was in charge of what, or who was in charge of who.”

At the start of the fall semester, Dizon thought he was the varsity team manager.

“During this one meeting, they just kind of told me like, ‘Oh, we already have a team manager’ after I had already been promised that role, and I was already doing the work for it,” he said. “[Huntley and Concepcion] just kind of brushed it off and they kind of gave me something else like a ‘secretary’.”

Fan was to be the president come spring according to several of the students and Huntley, but as the fall 2018 semester commenced, she was demoted by Huntley from president to vice president in favor of Concepcion. The switch happened after the summer of 2018, where the students weren’t putting as much time into USC Legends, citing responsibilities to work and internships. Concepcion took over many of the responsibilities relating to the involvement fair and recruitment.

“I guess it felt like the rug was pulled out from under me... I would have been more okay with it if either one of them had contacted me, but it came as a surprise,” said Fan.

Shen recalled being labeled the event coordinator for ESU, but then “all of a sudden I wasn’t anymore, and my role was shifted from doing event coordination for the esports program as a whole to just the club.”

During the summer, Huntley was reaching out to graduate students in the Marshall Interactive Gaming Association for paid part-time work with the operations of ESU, with tasks involving social media and “planning/organization”. Shen felt like the decision was undermining the unpaid positions held by her and the other students, and thought that ESU would be “a mix of students who are just passionate about esports,” instead of MBA students. However, no grad students were really a part of ESU until after the students of Summoner’s School left, according to students familiar with the program.

Huntley's post in the MIGA Facebook group
Huntley's post in the MIGA Facebook group

At the start of Fall 2018, the students “decided that there was like a fundamental difference in the purpose that we saw for esports at USC versus what the faculty and student director saw,” said Fan.

The students eventually had a long meeting with Huntley to air out their grievances, and there in the group setting Shen and Fan mentioned their experience with sexual harassment, citing inappropriate jokes and comments from another student in the club, who declined to comment on the allegations made by Shen. They reported the situation to Huntley, who was supposed to forward the complaints to Title IX according to USC faculty policy, though he did not, according to Shen. Shen and Fan approached Title IX themselves.

“They told us we didn’t have enough evidence to file a report or to start an investigation to warrant an investigation. If we decided to go through with an investigation, it would be unlikely that anything would come out of it,” said Shen.

Shen, Fan, Dizon, Huynh and Lee quit at the end of the meeting, and went on to form Summoner’s School.

“I felt like I was being used more like a tool, if anything, just to get what other people wanted instead of [the administration] believing or listening to what we had to say and what we had to offer,” said Dizon.

In her statement responding to the allegations, Borella, on behalf of USC Games, said that the “faculty mentioned in your article have expressed great interest in correcting the record in detail, but University policies preclude them from doing so.”

2019/2020 Varsity stipend program

In lieu of a scholarship program, faculty and administration involved with the USC LoL esports program decided to give players stipends to reward their time and contributions for the 2019/2020 school year on a model in line with UC Irvine, according to varsity LoL coach Joe Jacko. The stipend was to amount to around $6,000 over the academic year for the varsity players, $1000 for JV and $500 for alternates. Huntley made the initial announcement at the beginning of the fall 2019 school year outlining what the stipends would entail, and discussed timelines and net sum in meetings with the team.

Students on the USC varsity and JV LoL teams assumed checks would be distributed throughout the school year, but did not receive their first payments until weeks after the school year ended, in late May, according to students on the varsity team.

In her statement, Borella said the school was fortunate that the faculty advisor was able to secure sponsorship funding for the stipend program in the summer of 2019. “Although both the faculty advisor and students hoped that the funds would be received in the fall, the logistical issues involved in the process took much longer than anticipated, including actually receiving the money from the external sponsor,” she said.

USC was one of the few large universities to offer compensation to its players, unlike UCLA and Stanford, though many smaller schools are offering scholarships to incoming players. As of 2019, UC Berkeley offered a scholarship sponsored by Riot Games that gave up to $1500 to each player on their Division 1 roster.

Huntley wasn’t able to use the work study arrangement through USC due to the fluidity of the roster. Players could move from JV to varsity and vice versa based on their performance, so it was difficult to determine a set salary for each individual. Unlike a typical USC student worker, players were paid through a third party company with no contracts or tax forms involved, and students declared the incomes themselves.

Brandon Gunning played both varsity and JV last year, and reported that he received $5,571 for both semesters. Another student who played varsity the whole year earned around $5,600, though Dooroo Chung, another varsity player said “I received an amount I was promised, and I’m satisfied.”

Gunning recalled his frustration at Huntley when checks that were promised around December did not arrive.

“It was turning into kind of a trend where we would email [Huntley] or call him and ask him about the status of the stipend, and if he could give us some data of how they were moving forward,” he said.

Jacko recalled Huntley’s projections of “a target date of around the next month, but it was never an explicit ‘we will hit this date.’ It was very much like, ‘I’m working on it and hope to have it done by then.’”

Nevertheless, students expressed frustration at being “kept in the dark” throughout the year, according to Gunning. William Huang, the team’s Top Laner, mentioned that “the way they put it was like, ‘it’s not ready yet, but it will be soon,’ and that’s why everyone expected it to be ready earlier than it was.”

False hopes about a potential paycheck resulted in a difficult position for some students who passed up a work-study position in favor of a spot on the team.

“I would tell the coach a lot of times that if we don’t get paid soon, I actually have to just go and get work study,” said Huang, later mentioning that Jacko didn’t have much of a say over the situation.

Other players didn’t see as many problems with delays, and Chung would have played regardless of the paycheck, which he eventually gave to his mom as a thank you for supporting him through college. “Even if I don’t get paid, I can walk away being satisfied with this experience itself,” he said.

There isn’t a plan at the moment to continue the stipend program next semester, “I know that Jim [Huntley] had planned on them being an experiment for last year to see how they’d work. We haven’t confirmed which direction we’re going to take in light of the pandemic,” said Jacko.

He added that the team will be moving all practices online, given the pandemic and so few students returning to campus.

Story updated July 31, 2020: This story has been updated to include varsity’s plans for next semester and quotes from Amanda Fan