Colleges build new sports arenas fairly regularly, but it's a lot less common to see them creating an arena specifically for competitive video gaming.
UC Irvine will do just that as part of an "e-sports" program this fall. The 3,500-square-foot area will feature a stage for competitions in the game "League of Legends," a live webcasting studio and high-end gaming PCs at the school's student center.
They're also planning to offer up to 10 academic scholarships for students on the video gaming team. The team has already been competing against other schools in tournaments for the last several years, winning three back-to-back national titles.
The scholarships are set to be between $5,500 and $5,600, about half of the school's in-state tuition, acting director of the UC Irvine e-sports program Mark Deppe told KPCC, though some details are still being worked out.
"Our plan is to identify elite-level gamers on campus or coming to campus and pick a really great team to represent us," Deppe said.
The new "arena" is being constructed in the location currently being used for the school's "Zot Zone" games room at the student center.
"If you walked in the doors right now, you'd see nine pool tables, and some couches, and some console games. And so really what's happening is we're going to find new homes for those pool tables, and we're going to put in a bunch of PCs ... and create a little competition stage," Deppe said.
He said that the arena would have the vibe of a high-level Internet cafe. The arena's grand opening is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 23.
The school has a large gaming community. College Magazine ranked it the top school for gamers last year, with the largest computer game science major in the country. The campus is also home to an Association of Gamers whose membership is the highest of any club on campus, according to the school.
"The student community has kind of built itself, and now students are coming from all over the country and around the world just to be part of our computer gaming clubs on campus," Deppe said. "Our student groups have done a really job of creating this grassroots organization."
Deppe also said that the school's location in Southern California has helped, with staff partnering with local gaming companies. He said that gaming companies are also interested in attracting graduates from the school to work for them in the future.
Deppe has been working at the school for six years, previously working with UC Irvine's student government. He finished his MBA last year and, during one of his last classes, did a video game industry analysis where he saw how big the e-sports business had grown and how successful UC Irvine was in e-sports.
"I was just shocked to see how none of our administration, or no administration in higher education, was really paying attention to this, so I saw a really great opportunity to create a program at UCI," Deppe said. "Really, I saw all the dots and kind of connected them."
Students have also gotten behind the program.
"It has been a dream for many of us on campus that UCI recognize the importance of e-sports and create a space and a program that cater to the large community of gamers at the university," the school's Association of Gamers president Jesse Wang said in a press release.
Wang also said in a story on UCI's site that the school is building on its reputation as a haven for gamers, as it already has a gaming area.
"If you come here, gaming can be a big part of your academic and social life," Wang said in the story.
Former Association of Gamers head Kathy Chiang helped to guide the development of the e-sports program.
"Online and role-playing games allow you to get immersed in fantasy worlds and the lives of the characters you’re playing," Chiang, who also designed games as part of her computer game science major, said in the story. "It’s like literature, except you have a say in what happens. ... Strategy games can be as satisfying as playing sports, and the teamwork aspect is similar."
Chiang also said that UCI had enabled women to be more a part of gaming, even though female gamers have often been targeted for harassment and bullying.
Morgan Romine, a Ph.D. candidate at UCI studying the ethnography of video game design, said in the story that collegiate teams are catalysts for diversifying e-sports.
"They provide the opportunity to build and support women at the amateur level. It’s purely a numbers thing. Only about 5 percent of pro players are women, so you aren’t seeing them in the top 10," Romine said.
Romine is also the former captain and co-founder of the Frag Dolls, the first all-women e-sports team to win a pro gaming tournament.
The school's program already has corporate support from Los Angeles's Riot Games, the company that makes "League of Legends," which is providing what Deppe described as unique features for the e-sports arena. UCI's gaming club is one of 300 that the company supports, according to the company. They even have a collegiate program head, Ramon Hermann. He said in UCI's press release that they hope this program will inspire similar programs at other universities.
Deppe credited the success of "League of Legends" to the company's work with the gaming community and their support of the idea of competitive video gaming.
"E-sports is still emerging. It's still pretty new to the world, especially folks that haven't been involved," Deppe said. "E-sports is about building a community and supporting individual gamers."
Students who aren't on the team will also be able to use the gaming center both as part of classes and research projects as well as for fun. Custom computer company iBuyPower is providing 80 high-end gaming PCs loaded with popular games, as well as additional funding for the scholarships.
UC Irvine vice chancellor for student affairs Thomas Parham said in the release that the school's e-sports team would be built on "competition, academics, entertainment and community."
Watch UC Irvine students compete against UCLA in "League of Legends":
This story has been updated.