By Nina Tabios
The Art U Esports program at Academy of Art University is gearing up for another competitive semester this fall, following a season where most tournaments and productions were delayed due to hurdles brought on by the global pandemic. But with the learning curve now behind them, Art U Esports Director Michael Witzel said both the players and production crew are ready to resume play as scheduled.
“When we were suddenly sent home, the question was, ‘How are we going to do this?’” said Witzel, whose Esports Production class, a collaboration between the Schools of Game Development (GAM), Communication & Media Technologies, and Music Production & Sound Design for Visual Media, takes students through the behind-the-scenes of an esports tournament broadcast. “It actually went a lot smoother once we were online. We found and utilized tools to help the casters and tournament organizers, we used Zoom to solve communication issues; Everything started meshing together basically the same way it would in person.”
To kick off the season, the Art U Esports is hosting the NorCal 1v1 Collegiate Open, a Red Bull-sponsored “League of Legends” (LoL) tournament. Streaming live via Twitch on Saturday, Sept. 12, the NorCal 1v1 players square off in a series of head-to-head matches to crown a champion. Typically a five-on-five team exposition, this version of LoL hones in on the skills and mechanics of individual competitors. Up to 128 players can sign up, with the winning prize set at $85 worth of Cloud9 apparel and a Legendary Skin Code.
“It’s different in the way that you’re not relying on anyone else,” said Art U Esports President Kristi Liu, who is the Team Manager for LoL, “Overwatch,” and “Valorant,” a new game from Riot Games. “I feel like we’re going to see a higher skill level of play because these competitors can’t rely on team play, they have to solely rely on themselves.”
Liu, who studies UI/UX design as an undergraduate in GAM, has been with Art U Esports since she first attended the weekly “Overwatch” intramurals in Spring 2019. Along with Michael Te Ping, a fellow GAM undergraduate studying level design, the two spent most of shelter in place helping Witzel figure out the kinks to piece together a smooth esports operation.
Any production is a series of moving parts. Casters needed to be logged on and streaming with a software called OBS.Ninja to cast a full quality video feed over the internet. Broadcast directors instructed casters, while also monitoring the stream and keeping everyone on schedule. Tournament organizers queued players up on Discord, making sure everyone was ready to go, while production staff was on call via Zoom to keep all other components up and running.
“For behind-the-scenes, we had Michael [Witzel] managing the big producer role, managing all the scene switches,” Liu said. “It’s really a lot of prep work leading up to the tournament; preparing the casters to look presentable at home, making sure players are at their computer and ready to go, planning with graphic designers and video editors for assets, those kinds of things.”
It’s a solid system for now, but it was enough to catch the attention of Red Bull ambassadors and inspire them to partner with the upcoming esports events. The team collectively believes that while being forced online came out of an unfortunate situation, it created new opportunities for the esports program that may have been harder to achieve on campus.
“Red Bull is a big name to have for your event,” Liu said. “We’re also opening this up to the whole public, which is also something we don’t do, usually it’s students only. So, we jumped from events being open only to on-site students to online and on-site students only to the whole public, which is really big, I think, within the past semester or two.”
“We’re constantly learning and evolving,” Witzel said. “We found another way to continue to build the community virtually. So, when we do come back on-site, no matter where the student is or if they’re somewhere else, then yes, they can participate in our tournaments.”
It took a couple of test runs during the summer to really nail it, but the team feels ready to take on the competition. And there’s a hefty schedule ahead of them. Following the NorCal 1v1 tournament, the esports program launches the Golden Coast Invitational, a 10-week “Valorant” tournament with over 40 participating colleges and universities throughout California.
Two more online tournaments are slated for October and December: a six-on-six “Overwatch” exhibition and five-on-five “Valorant” event, respectively, as well as bi-weekly student-driven game nights throughout the semester.
“With esports, we always want to be bigger, better, and we want to be the best school,” Witzel said. “I think our location, the type of university we are, and all the majors we have here would easily lend itself to having the best esports program in North America, if not the world. Esports is definitely entertainment and art is the driving force of entertainment.”