UCI Assumes Leadership Role with First Annual Esports Conference

October 8, 2018

The First Annual Esports Conference (ESC 2018) will be an event like no other, with influential researchers mingling across disciplines and networking with industry leaders, and fans cheering on collegiate esports players as they battle professional teams at a free festival. Starting on Oct. 11 with a keynote from Magy Seif El-Nasr, a leading researcher in data analytics around games, the two-day event aims to fill the void in esports research and help shape the emerging esports culture.

Filling the Void
“There’s really no conference that organizes esports research,” says Informatics Professor Constance Steinkuehler. “As I moved into studying esports, it was really hard to find empirical studies, because they’re all siloed into different disciplines and under different rubrics.” She eventually pulled together about 130 articles, but her struggle in digging up the material, along with the Esports Summit held at Applied Innovation last year, led her to start talking to Mark Deppe, director of UCI Esports, about organizing an academic conference.

Deppe agreed that it was a worthwhile endeavor. “There are lots of esports conferences out there, but this is the first to connect practitioners with researchers,” he explains.

In organizing the event, the first hurdle was to attract high-quality submissions. They originally hoped to accept enough papers for one or maybe two tracks, but the conference program now features three tracks, covering everything from inclusion and team dynamics to streaming and spectating to strategy and best practices for esports training. Furthermore, the acceptance rate was just 33 percent — giving it “academic heft,” as Steinkuehler puts it — and six of the top-rated papers will be appearing in a special issue of Games and Culture, one of the top game journals.

Networking Across Disciplines
Although attracting high-quality research was critical, Steinkuehler stresses that “the conference isn’t just the content. It’s also getting people to talk across disciplines.”

With content coming from kinesiology, industry, big data analytics, game design, communication arts, digital humanities and social sciences, and covering both critical theoretical work about esports and the commercialization of play, the conference is structured to promote networking. “We have people from all of these different disciplines coming together for the first time, studying different aspects of the same phenomenon, so we designed it with 30-minute windows between sessions so people can cross pollinate.”

There’s also a poster reception with a bar and food and opportunities for one-on-one conversations.

Informing Industry
The networking won’t just be between academics; industry “movers and shakers” from Twitch, Riot, Blizzard and Logitech will also be in attendance. In fact, the second day of the conference opens with a keynote from Mark “Garvey” Candella, director of strategic partnerships for Twitch.

“I’m really excited to see the academic and industry folk come together while all the events are going on around us,” says ESC student co-chair Craig G. Anderson, an Informatics doctoral student.

Students set up and test out the first operational computers in the eSports arena at UCI.
photo: steve zylius/UCI

Steinkuehler explains that these industry leaders don’t just want to commercialize the space — they’re trying to “professionalize” it. “That means you have an opportunity to actually influence and inform industry about what would be a healthy ecosystem,” she explains. “Also, a lot of them are trying to diversify this space. None of the big players want esports to only be a niche topic.” Empirical research can help set benchmarks and identify ways to build a more inclusive and diverse ecosystem.

“And we’re sitting in Orange County, surrounded by industry,” she points out. “I don’t think any school but UCI could pull this off, because we are literally sitting in the area where much of this industry is happening.”

As such, UCI has emerged as a leader in this area and was ranked the No. 1 school for gamers. “The esports program we have is considered the top program,” says Steinkuehler. “What Duke is to basketball, UCI is to esports.”

Enjoying the Free Festival
The conference also includes a variety of festival events that are free and open to the public, with support from conference sponsor Inven Global, a huge marketing firm in esports. There arecosplay events, “Overwatch” and “League of Legends” matches and a keynote by Chris Kluwe, a former NFL player and current gamer. “He is a grass-roots leader who has been pretty outspoken about the games community and what we ought to be doing,” says Steinkuehler, adding that reaching out to him was a “long shot,” but he said he’d love to participate!

Deppe says they’re expecting more than 100 conference attendees and thousands of people at the festival. “I’m looking forward to seeing everyone come together and plan out collaborations to solve some of the grand challenges of esports as the industry grows and matures.”

— Shani Murray