Cal Esports continues to grow its esports footprint

Cal Esports at the Streamer Showcase at the 2018 NA LCS Summer Finals. Provided by Cal Esports

Give the people what they want.

That simple direction permeated every inch of the North American League of Legends Championship Series Finals in Oakland, California, last weekend. You could sense it in the hilarious, expletive-laden showmatch between five popular streamers and a meme bot lane buttressed by three grinning LCS pros. That mentality fueled Tyler "loltyler1" Steinkamp's involvement with the broadcast after being declared persona non grata for years, and underscored the iconic image of the finals: Team Liquid's Ginyu Force-inspired introduction from Dragon Ball Z.

Like nearly every one of the 9,000-plus fans clustered inside Oracle Arena's Lower Bowl, Patrick Visan, a sophomore from the University of California, Berkeley, loved the defending champion's anime entrance. But he wasn't surprised.

"When [Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng] was streaming a few months ago, he was talking with [Kim "Olleh" Joo-sung] about doing a pose on LCS," said Visan. "They were arguing back and forth about what it should be. It was pretty funny to see them do it here."

The nuclear engineering major did not come to Oracle alone. As part of the Executive Board of Berkeley Legends, his university's League of Legends student club, Visan helped bring 24 other clubmates with him. Most of the two-day passes supplied by Riot Games were raffled off, with some reserved for board members and coaches.

Berkeley Legends President Alex Jiang knew he had to plan a club outing to the first major League of Legends event held in the Bay Area since 2016, but he wanted to make sure the meetup was as much a mixer as it was a reward.

"I hope a lot of people come out of their shell," said Jiang, a junior computer science major. "A lot of these people maybe weren't as outgoing in high school. They're not super outspoken, they don't have a ton of friends here yet, and that's where I feel Berkeley Legends can really help them shine. They know there's at least 20 other people sitting right next to them that love League of Legends, too, and they can talk about it. I think that's happening right now."

Seated together in some of the venue's best seats -- center court in Section 101, Rows 5-7, if you were curious -- the Berkeley Legends crew watched Team Liquid sweep Cloud9 and the Swole Bros, subduing the club's vocal C9 contingent. For Jiang, the real highlights came the day before, watching his beloved Team SoloMid eek out a five-game victory over 100 Thieves in the third-place match ahead of Meme Stream Dream Team's domination of Throw Machine Gaming.

"I loved yesterday," said Jiang. "There was a lull in the middle where it was a little boring, but by the end, everyone was hyped. Game 5, me and everyone around us were on the edge of our seats, screaming. The streamer showcase was obviously amazing, but the series was super fun."

Vice President Cherie Lin won't soon forget meeting icons such as Michael "Imaqtpie" Santana, William "Scarra" Li, ‎Joedat "Voyboy" Esfahani and Danny "Shiphtur" Le at the pregame Fan Zone. They gamely spent hours posing for photos before competing in the nightcap.

"Seeing Qtpie in real life is like, 'Wow, this guy's a legend,'" said Lin, a senior majoring in media studies. "I think it's so cool that esports is at this point where you can still have face-to-face time with these legendary people. I can't imagine doing that in traditional sports, being able to walk up to Steph Curry, give him a fist bump or handshake, or hug him."

One month ago, Cal Esports took a major step forward with the launch of its state-of-the-art Esports Community Center, a new hub for university teams and amateurs alike. Its 54 gaming computers outfitted by CORSAIR and NVIDIA serves as a necessary addition to improve Cal's competitive teams. Cal Overwatch already won the Fiesta Bowl Overwatch Collegiate National Championship in February, well before the new facility opened its doors. Imagine how its other nine teams across seven sports will fare now.

But perhaps more importantly, the Esports Community Center is a resource for student clubs like Berkeley Legends to host more events for a broader pool of students. There's a reason officials did not echo UC Irvine's "Esports Arena" branding: The space is meant for more than just elite competition.

"A lot of people have been gated by not having a laptop that can perform well for non-academic things, or not having enough disposable income to have a desktop at home," said Visan. "Having the gaming facility where we can host our events in conjunction with the university and Cal Esports helps us bring more people who may not have been able to join us at our events before."

UC Berkeley has concluded that when building a sustainable esports program, people matter. Reaching out to communities of all means and abilities matters. Growing esports by casting a wide net strengthens the scene for the future by creating deeper fanbases that will one day rival those of traditional sports. Riot -- an official partner of the Esports Community Center -- understands this too, with Summer Finals our latest evidence.

"Events like these are really made by the people you go with, making those relationships with the community," said Lin. "I've gotten the chance to meet a lot of my clubmates more. For me, that's what I'm going to take away from here, all the friends I've made."