New esports community center set to open fall 2018

NRG Esports and SF Shock CEO Andy Miller (left) with Cal Esports President Kevin Ponn (right).
Lawrence Zhao/Staff
NRG Esports and SF Shock CEO Andy Miller (left) with Cal Esports President Kevin Ponn (right).

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A decade ago, it would’ve been impossible to find a gaming facility on a college campus. Now, it’s just months away from happening at Cal.

On Wednesday, the Division of Student Affairs, working with the Cal Esports Program, announced a one-of-a-kind partnership with NRG eSports and the San Francisco Shock to open up an esports community center at the Foothill housing complex come fall 2018.

In recent years, esports facilities have begun popping up on college campuses around the country, the most notable being UC Irvine Esports Arena, which contributed to the success of the school’s collegiate esports program. The rise of collegiate esports comes as the esports industry as a whole draws more than 200 million viewers and is estimated to reach $1.4 billion by 2020.

Despite not having an official facility up to this point, the Cal Esports program has achieved extraordinary success, most recently winning three national titles in “Overwatch.” The program has also won numerous championships in “Starcraft II,” “Dota 2” and “Heroes of the Storm,” earning a total of nearly $500,000 in gaming scholarships.

Kevin Ponn, President of Cal Esports, hopes that this new esports community center will build on the progress the program has made so far, similar to the way UCI’s arena emboldened its program.

“UCI’s teams have always been strong contenders, but once they got their center up and running, we saw that there was a very large swell of community support,” Ponn said. “We have players that are looking to find scholarships and world-class competitions, so with this new facility, we’ll be able to support them that much more.”

But it’s more than just the competitive teams. Cal Esports hopes to build a holistic program that focuses on five key pillars: community, competition, wellness, social good and lifelong learning.

There are also preparations to launch a Women in Gaming initiative, led by Cherie Lin and Tiffany Tsay, to help close the gender gap in esports, at least within the Cal community, as well as a Gaming Alumni Chapter.

“We want this facility to be a point of recruitment for Cal itself,” Ponn said. “This facility would make resources available to students who wouldn’t normally be able to access these resources.”

There have been talks to offer the center to DeCal instructors and to professors who teach courses associated with the field of gaming. The program also plans to use the center to host mixers, TED-style talks, and industry internship and job fairs in association with the campus Career Center.

“It’s not just about a path to pro to be a player. It’s a path to get a job,” said Andy Miller, owner and CEO of NRG eSports and SF Shock. “Cal has the most amazing gaming club, if you’ve seen what Caltopia is like. This is literally the physical epicenter of our territory for the Shock.

The decision to build the facility at Foothill comes after a campuswide search for an ideal location. The Foothill academic center was identified as an out-of-date and underused space on campus — something that’s hard to come by in a large institution such as Cal.

The plan is to relocate the Foothill academic center and to make cosmetic improvements to its former location for the esports community center.

Funding for the renovations comes via the partnership with NRG eSports and the Shock.

The Shock is 1 of 12 professional franchises competing in the Overwatch League and is owned by NRG eSports, an esports organization based in San Francisco that competes across nine different titles. NRG has attracted a star-studded cast of investors, including Cal alumnus Marshawn Lynch, Shaquille O’Neal, Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez, in addition to several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

“Our initial goal is to have (NRG and SF Shock) provide some of the resources so we can do some of the minor renovations up at Foothill,” said Stephen Sutton, the interim Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs. “As the program grows, we’ll look at other ways we can support the athletes with new equipment.”

Security is a constant issue for such a facility, given the recent string of laptop thefts around campus. It is currently estimated that the esports community center will house between 40-50 gaming setups, each valued at anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000.

“We’ll make sure we have the appropriate alarming and cameras,” Sutton said. “We can’t be totally sure of preventing something from happening, but I feel confident that we’ll have a good amount of deterrents.”

In terms of the future of the Cal Esports program, the sky’s the limit. Sutton has stated that the Division of Student Affairs will look for sponsors to fund scholarship dollars and hasn’t ruled out the possibility of making accommodations for esports athletes, as is done for traditional sports athletes.

“I could see (the program) outgrowing this space,” Sutton said. “We may find ourselves in a place where we quickly need something bigger.”

Lawrence Zhao covers esports. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @CelticsWpn