Hop online: How gaming tournaments bring students together during quarantine

Amy Jiang/Courtesy

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It’s been almost two months since the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order began, and UC Berkeley is deserted. Students have returned to their homes all over the world, leaving friends, campus and beloved student clubs behind without the chance to say a proper goodbye.

Some groups at Cal, however, are continuing online. Video games and esports are seeing an unexpected boom as many people are confined to their homes. Similarly, student organizations that are focused on gaming are finding ways to bring the energy of competition to students at home.

Berkeley Legends, the official League of Legends club at Cal, is keeping busy during the quarantine. From April 30 to May 3, it hosted the Berkeley Legends Challenger Series, or BLCS, a League of Legends tournament open to the public.

The event painted a picture of the power of esports at a local level, particularly while most other sources of entertainment have ground to a halt.

“Our main events have been pretty much unaffected because we are fortunate enough to be able to run them online,” said Patrick Visan, Berkeley Legends president and junior bioengineering student. “We’ve continued hosting events as usual because in theory, people will have more time at home, and we still want to provide a space for people to hang out even if they aren’t able to be in person with us.”

Thanks to the online nature of gaming clubs, students never really have to say goodbye if they don’t want to. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Berkeley Legends’ online platforms regularly played host to recent grads, as well as to current club members. BLCS attracted several former students.

One alumnus is Sonny “Sonny2o9” Nguyen, who graduated from Cal in 2018. While he was a student, he played for the Division I League of Legends team, representing Cal in the College League of Legends tournament. Nguyen and his teammates won first place in the BLCS tournament.

“I met basically all my teammates in solo queue, and they’re from all over the country. One of them is from Canada, so the only reason we were able to participate is that it was online,” Nguyen said. “I see it much more, online tournaments, nowadays because of the quarantine, which is nice.”

Current students also praised the online competition. Anthony Zhou, a junior computer science major, signed up to play with his friends from Illinois, his home state.

“I think an outlet to get people together, to play together and try hard together is really healthy. It gives you a purpose to do something, as opposed to just going about your day monotonously,” Zhou said. “It was quite fun — great event. I would definitely do it again.”

The BLCS was modeled after the club’s previous 5v5 tournament, which it hosted annually. The 5v5 tournament was limited to 50 competitors from the local area due to space constraints, as teams had to play in person.

BLCS, on the other hand, attracted more than 100 registrants with an entirely online format. Berkeley Legends officers created brackets, set up games and answered questions through Discord, a chat platform specifically intended for gaming communities.

The club also set up its own livestream of the event on the Berkeley Legends’ Twitch channel, complete with casters. Production of the stream was entirely remote, which was similar to the professional esports leagues that BLCS imitated.

Most participating teams had some affiliation with UC Berkeley, but a few were from Stony Brook University, Stanford University and the University of Washington.

“The most exciting part for me was talking to so many people from different schools who saw our tournament and decided to compete against each other,” said Amy Jiang, sophomore Berkeley Legends vice president. “Meeting new people and seeing them compete was a standout moment.”

As Berkeley Legends demonstrates, video games can be an effective way to address the challenges that come with socializing during quarantine, and their influence is widespread.

In the popular Facebook page, Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens, users share resources for playing online games together as a way to stay in touch with college friends. Some traditional sports leagues have turned to esports content while their stars are at home.

The future at UC Berkeley is unclear, given recent announcements about remote instruction for the fall 2020 semester. Despite the uncertainty, Berkeley Legends keeps its sights set on doing its best for the student community.

“Our root purpose is for people to have a good time and enjoy themselves,” Visan said. “I hope the amount of effort we put into the players’ experience shone through, and that they’ll be inspired to come back and give us feedback, so we can continue to create even bigger tournaments for more people.”

Julia Shen covers esports. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @yinglol.