If asked to identify a Western team ranked among the best in North America, you might not immediately think of the one featuring fast-clicking strategists with nicknames like ‘Shorthop’ and ‘BlazedNova’. But this team is, in a word, Legendary.
This weekend, Western’s League of Legends team begins 2020 tournament play, seeking to improve on its second-place finish in front of 38,000 online and in-person fans last June.
The team entered last year’s college competition ranked fifth among about 470 colleges in North America, team leader Kyle Raposo said – and they surprised everyone (but themselves) by steadily knocking off the competition until being stopped in the finals by Maryville University of St. Louis, Missouri.
This year, Western is again ranked fifth in an ESPN pre-season poll of coaches.
League of Legends is a Riot Games multi-player online videogame in which teams use collective strategy and skill to defeat rivals on a virtual battlefield. Its popularity and sponsor support have soared to the extent that the Legends professional world championship last year attracted 100 million real and online viewers.
Since 2014, university teams have been competing in a College League of Legends competition featuring more than 300 university teams, including more than 30 programs that offer scholarships, playing across the United States and Canada.
Riot organizes its own four regional conferences, but also partners with two NCAA conferences the Peach Belt Conference and Big Ten Conference, that organize their own conference play.
Competing against varsity programming (and varsity-level funding) at other school, Raposo knows there’s some advantage to being considered a David among the Goliaths in one of the most competitive games in the surging eSports world.
At Western, the League of Legends team is part of the Western Electronic Gaming Association club through the University Students’ Council.
“Of the Top Five teams in North America, Western is the only one without a varsity (League of Legends) program. In that sense, we’re still underdogs. But in terms of what we can do, people realize we’re still the real deal.”
Following last year’s win, he and his teammates were awarded Riot Games scholarships valued at USD $8,000.
Raposo looks to dispel the myth among non-fans that League of Legends is for “computer nerds.” He noted the team includes players and a manager from Engineering, Science, Business and Social Sciences.
“The largest misconception is that it’s just a bunch of kids playing a game. It couldn’t be any less true. It’s a strategy, a structured approach,” he said.
When Raposo first came to Western in 2015, it had no League of Legends team. Since, it has required tryouts to select the most talented.
This season, the team is returning four of its five starters (the fifth having graduated and now on the professional circuit). “We’re confident in our abilities and our ability to develop new talent,” he said.
Members are Raposo, known as ‘Shorthop’, a fifth-year Computer Engineering student; Ian ‘Chim’ Pessoa; Peter ‘BlazedNova’ Sho; Winston ‘Winston’ Herold; Bill ‘ThisNameThough’ Zang; Dan ‘Autolock Saber’ Lou; Danny ‘Loyal’ Qiao; and Aria ‘Solaria’ Leslie as manager.
Each member has a specialty – in much the same way a basketball team may have a top rebounder or a three-point specialist, Raposo noted. Their main strength, however, is how they work together as a unit.
“We’re close friends outside of the game. When stuff goes wrong, we’re reminded of that,” he said. “We play League of Legends at the highest collegiate level, but we always say we are students first so it’s a matter of school comes first.”
The team often practises at the new eSports Arena in the lower level of the University Community Centre. (The official opening takes place on Feb. 5.)
They’re part of a complex tournament format in which teams need to win at least five of six games in their region to advance to a round of playoffs in March, then continue winning through successively more competitive brackets before the top eight teams are flown to Riot’s gaming headquarters in Los Angeles.
Raposo believes there’s a good argument to be made for eSports attaining varsity status but recognizes that’s a future goal. Today, the goal is advancing through each level of the tournament and advancing to the finals.
“It’s the thrill of playing in a team and representing Western, even unofficially.”