LOS ANGELES -- For some colleges and universities, the fight to just have an esports club at a school can be an arduous task.
For others, a big commitment can be spurred on by a local news story.
When the current director of esports at Maryville University, Dan "Clerkie" Clerke, was interviewed by a local news program in 2015, Maryville took notice. They recognized that the then-owner of Enemy Esports was a business student at the university. When Clerkie went to his university counselor to discuss whether he should take a $1.2 million offer for his team that had just qualified for LCS, Clerkie was brought to the president's office.
"He said, 'Turn down the money. We'll give you some security here, and we'll build something here,'" Clerkie said. "I initially told them no. I was a very egotistical, cocky kid back then because I had just made LCS. I thought I was on top of the world."
But Clerkie eventually agreed to help Maryville, and on June 30 of that year, the university announced its varsity esports program would begin in the fall of 2015. Months later, Enemy was relegated from the LCS.
But thanks to Clerkie's connections and leadership, his college team had much better fortunes.
Once a year, the League of Legends Championship Series victory banners that hang from the rafters of Riot Games' LCS Arena are replaced by the victors of its College League of Legends Championship. Maryville's name is on the one from 2017. And a year after a shocking loss in the quarterfinals of the championship, the Saints are back again to try to reclaim the collegiate title in League of Legends.
A day after Riot Games announced their commitment to collegiate and high school League of Legends by forming the Riot Scholastic Association of America -- effectively closing the door on any NCAA involvement after the NCAA recently tabled their own esports discussion -- those banners were draped behind Maryville as it swept NC State 2-0 to reach the College League of Legends semifinals.
Maryville will face the team that upset them last year, Illinois, on Saturday. Top laner Aiden "Niles" Tidwell wasn't with the Saints when they lost last year, but he said he sees this game as a way to really help his team and establish himself as a top collegiate player.
"The series today, especially in Game 1, we had a huge lead but fell into their ARAM style instead of playing to side lanes," Niles said. "If we make that same mistake against Illinois, they're a better team, and they'll punish us more, so as long as we fix the mistakes we made today, we should be OK."
Clerkie wants the Maryville program to be a structured environment for college students to express their passion and talent in League, or other esports like Overwatch, where Maryville made the Collegiate Esports Championship semifinals before losing to tournament winners Harrisburg University, while receiving an education. The school offers full-ride scholarships that include housing and meal plans.
While the majority of players in the program do not want to become LCS professionals, most will look for jobs in esports management or staffing, with Clerkie helping when he can with his contacts in the professional scene. He is still active in the pro esports scene as the general manager of eUnited, which fields teams in Call of Duty, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Fortnite and several other titles.
The school and Clerkie's dedication to developing their esports program means that Maryville now finds itself well-positioned when it compares to other collegiate esports organizations. Like a Division I NCAA school in traditional sports, the Saints frequently have their pick of League players due to the reputation of the team and the program. What started as Clerkie hand-picking a few players has now turned into three-month tryout periods with anywhere between 60 to 200 potential players signing up.
Current Maryville top laner Aiden "Niles" Tidwell is one such player. While living with his sister in Dayton, Ohio, Niles saw a Twitter post advertising tryouts for the Maryville team. He reached out and asked Clerkie for information.
"I'd watched the previous college championships," Niles said. "I knew about Maryville. I knew they had won in 2017. So I said, 'Hey, I'm going to be going to community college anyway, might as well try out for this team. If they like me, then great.'"
They liked him.
"Pure talent isn't what's going to get you on the team," Clerkie said. "It's the interview and getting a sense of how dedicated you are not only to the game but to your studies and what you're going to get out of the college experience. He is very adamant -- and he's very mature for his age -- that he wants to finish school or get a large chunk of his school finished. The only thing that would change that is if he received an offer that he couldn't refuse from an LCS organization."
Now Niles is a key component of Maryville's 2019 success and was one of the standouts in their sweep of NC State. Niles cites Cloud9's Eric "Licorice" Ritchie as one of his top lane inspirations and said that Licorice's journey to becoming a more flexible top laner resonated with him.
"I saw his development as a player," Niles said. "I remember distinctly when he picked Fiora against Team Liquid in the quarterfinals, and it was not the pick at all, but he was uncomfortable playing a supportive role. That resonates with me because I used to be a carry player before I came to Maryville, but as I've been here, I've learned to play less selfish and play with my team more."
Last year at the College LoL Championship, first-seed Maryville was upset by Illinois in the quarterfinals. Although Niles wasn't on the team at the time, he breathed a sigh of relief along with his teammates after beating NC State.
"In the team we just joke about it to cope with it, but i think it definitely does weigh on them," Niles said. "And from the outside as well, people are more serious. People have doubts: 'Are they chokers?' Stuff like that.
"I think today we were a little worried about winning, so we played a bit slow. But we ended up winning. The curse is broken, I guess."