The USC varsity League of Legends program still isn’t quite sure how much they want to win.   

It’s the crux of the philosophical divide between the likes of Jim Huntley, an adjunct faculty member who oversees USC’s esports programs, and senior narrative studies major Michael Ahn, who left his position as the team’s assistant coach in Spring 2020.

Huntley values an educational experience over total collegiate domination. Ahn wanted a team that could compete with the best. Neither is unfounded in their desires, but esports are growing fast in a public eye with a more critical view of defeat. Trying to keep varsity as primarily educational may be tough, if not impossible in the coming years. 

It’s tough to see where varsity esports could even fall into the curriculum, as when compared to other USC programs, the competitive nature of esports most closely resembles typical athletics. The role of athletics in higher education is discussed all the time; the conversation has abandoned the hope of amateurism’s return and moved instead to identifying student athletes as professionals who deserve compensation. Sports are money machines for universities who rake in millions of dollars of profits through ticket sales and network deals. The better the team, the more people watch the games, the more students enroll and pay tuition. 

USC football doesn’t have much to do with education, and esports are inevitably going in that direction. Once people start watching esports, the administration may start feeling pressure to recruit players for their skill rather than creating a space for students to pursue an interesting extracurricular. The spirit of competition will become the driving force of the program, and figures like Joe Jacko — the team’s head coach — won’t be praised for his ability to educate the students with lessons about inclusivity and sportsmanship, but criticized if the team doesn’t win, like most other varsity sports on campus. 

Students like Ahn are determined to avoid the fate of mediocrity and aspire to a competitive stature with eyes trained on the bigger stages ahead.  

Ahn was pivotal to the team’s early successes last spring. He had recently become an assistant coach for the academy — the League of Legends (LoL) equivalent of a triple A baseball — team Counter Logic Gaming (CLG). It’s a step below USA’s best and brightest in the professional League Championship Series.  

He felt like his insight from CLG was valuable for USC in the draft stages of a match, a strategic part of the game where the coaches pick which Champions  (LoL characters) the players will use and ban them for the opposing team. Several people on the team noted his contributions as a major reason for the team’s placement in ESPN’s Top 25 list of college LoL teams, and many of their victories earlier in the season. 

When Ahn asked for a raise after getting the CLG gig, Huntley rejected the proposal. He wanted to see results, and Ahn had been coaching for just a few months. But Ahn saw his position as something beyond the scope of a $15 an hour student worker.feeling like his esteemed position in the professional circuit deserved more recognition.

“The work that I was doing with USC was not necessarily an improvement of my practice, but the application of my practice,” he told Annenberg Media. 

The team suffered at the end of the season, notably in the Games Expo where they faced off against UC Riverside, UC Santa Cruz and San Jose State. According to Ahn, the team’s biggest problems came during the draft stage. They eked out a win against Santa Cruz, but only because of the players’ individual talent. Had the other team been a little better, Ahn noted that USC’s draft would have rendered them helpless, just as it had in the other two matches where Riverside and San Jose capitalized on the team’s mistakes. After the tournament he felt like much of the work he did during his tenure had evaporated. 

“It was hard for me to watch. This is why expertise in esports is so necessary as a faculty advisor, because they can’t catch stuff like this. But how do you expect someone who is like level three [a low skilled player] in League to know these problems?”, he said. 

Other students didn’t see the necessity behind Ahn’s coaching, preferring a varsity experience that wasn’t so hell bent on victory. 

“It’s like bringing a professional NBA coach to teach a high school team where the individual players may not even have the ability to get the ball in the basket,” said Dooroo Chung, who plays on the team, referring to the large gap in experience between Ahn and the rest of the team. 

Chung represents a side closer to Huntley, one that doesn’t put victory as the number one priority and would have played regardless of the stipend. 

“It was a valuable experience for me. I think I’m getting a sense of the competitive side of esports, especially in a game that I love to play,” he said. 

Huntley wants the varsity esports program to be a learning experience where the team is just one aspect of a more holistic esports curriculum alongside classes and industry connections. 

It’s a goal that’s hard to maintain alongside the growing competition in the esports field, especially when great teams like those of UC Irvine and Maryville University in St Louis, help draw eyes to their game design and esports curriculums. The reputation builds as the team gets better, and students looking for colleges to pursue esports may gravitate towards the best in competition. 

But as competition grows, so do the risks already seen in professional esports. While esports players don’t face the same physical demands as their athletic counterparts, they face the same sort of grueling practice schedules as sports teams, sometimes more as the lack of physical fatigue allows teams to practice all waking hours of the day. Practice schedules will start to mirror those of the football team, but instead of spending extra time off the field and in the gym, players may spend personal time at their computers to maintain their edge. 

USC varsity players got paid to practice 20 hours a week last year, but a few players took it upon themselves to grind during their off time by watching games in an effort to push the team to a higher standard. USC varsity LoL isn’t deeply competitive in a blooming collegiate scene that has yet to see massive audiences and advertisers with expectations. It seems naive to assume that the pressure to play outside of sanctioned practices won’t increase while it’s already happening on the individual level where outside pressures are still quite low. 

Like football, there will be regulations and playtime caps, maybe even made easier by limiting systems on players accounts, but eventually USC — a highly competitive university with an elite game design program — may not be so satisfied with being 25th place in the country. Workarounds are inevitable, as are the expectations of a student doing whatever necessary for a virtual championship ring. 

So then esports becomes more like a factory. Like traditional sports, school becomes secondary, and students with scholarships will be spending most of their college education grinding away at LoL or Overwatch. 

Unlike football, LoL hasn’t yet reached the status of a classic American past-time. It seems like a monolith now, but it’s only been around for 10 years compared to football’s 151. Overwatch started in 2016 and is regarded as one of the biggest games out right now, though is seeing some signs of losing steam. While gaming prowess can be transferred from game to game, a college student that puts a significant chunk of their college experience into Overwatch could reap none of those rewards in five years if the game loses popularity. This kind of volatility is definitely grounds for concern for a still developing community. 

Barrelling ahead with a varsity program hell bent on winning could be seen as premature and even irresponsible. Women are still practically non-existent in the upper echelons of esports, and there’s been little headway in realizing any efforts to incorporate that half of the population. Diversity is lacking on the whole, marred by the digital platform existing in a space reserved for the technologically adept and privileged. The toxicity known to the early days of Xbox Live never really went away, and racist, sexist remarks and actions continue through all levels of play. 

How could the program in good faith ignore these issues in his efforts to create a program that could set or inspire the tone for hundreds of colleges and universities attempting the same thing, especially in the politically charged climate of the early 20′s?

It’s an identity crisis that leaves USC esports somewhere in the middle, embodied by the hiring of Joe Jacko, the fourth coach in the last two years. Before him were Jay Lee, who left after disagreements between he and Huntley; Peter Zhang, who left to pursue a career in professional LoL, and Tanner Diegan, who became the head coach of Maryville esports. 

Jacko was hired with a job description with many more responsibilities than just coaching.

“There are a ton of things that I do beyond coaching for Jim and for the university,” he said, citing administration of USC hosted tournaments, partnerships and communication with other universities and providing general aid and assistance to the overall Esports Union (ESU) program. 

Through no fault of his own, Jacko can’t spend all his time directly working on making sure the team destroys in every match. Huntley hired him to build a program, not beat Maryville. 

But, can the program be successful if it tries to do both? Will we see an all around improvement that brings USC to the forefront of competitive collegiate esports? Or will it get lost in its own self examination, an attempt at pushing not only esports competition forward, but the entire culture in the process?

This idea transcends LoL. All the budding competitive esports at USC face the same future, and I can’t see how USC could possibly avoid what seems to be an inevitable net increase in competition around the collegiate landscape. They’ll have to start taking steps in pushing the varsity teams to be able to compete with top universities to maintain prestige, but that doesn’t mean they should ignore their responsibility to make esports inclusive. They shouldn’t have to. A stronger identity of competitive excellence may help push the culture forward too, unifying the community around a common goal.