By Connor Smith
Late in the game, the Lions needed a play. The team was down big against the Columbia College Cougars, and the longer it dragged out, the more desperate the Lions became. After a major Lions misplay, the Cougars began their final push for game one.
Three of five Lions remained.
The first game in a best-of-three series was on the line, and sophomore history major Jackson Kim sought one final chance to strike. When the Cougars turned their attention to a risky objective, Kim launched himself over a wall and into the Cougars clutches.
Even with help from junior business major Bobby St Pierre and senior finance major Chris Roberts, Kim’s gambit bordered on suicide.
That’s when St Pierre and Kim neutralized two opponents, and Roberts fired hard-hitting shots at long range. In one chaotic skirmish, the Lions overcame the Cougars and rode their momentum into a 2-0 sweep of the series. This might have been Lions athletics’ biggest win of the year — defeating an opponent with better coaching, infrastructure and even scholarship support.
The only problem? This wasn’t a varsity sport at all — it was a game of “League of Legends.”
While several of the College’s sports teams have seen recent success, the Competitive Gaming Club’s “League” team followed up its win against the Cougars with a 2-0 sweep against California Polytechnic State University. The Lions gamers finished undefeated in Collegiate Starleague regular series play, as they prepare for an 128-team playoff bracket that begins on March 18.
“I’m actually very surprised that we have the talent pool at TCNJ to compete with such talented players,” Roberts told The Signal. “Statistically, everyone on the first team is at the top 1 percent of the ‘League of Legends’ population. So, in a school of 7,000-8,000 students, five people who are in the top 1 percent is pretty impressive.”
“League” is the biggest of several “esports” — or competitive video games — that are on the rise to mainstream popularity. Major sports teams like the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Bruins have recently acquired successful esports brands, while broadcasters like Turner Sports, ESPN and the Big Ten Network, which is owned by the NCAA conference of the same name, are working hard to secure broadcasting rights for the biggest titles.
While the Big Ten has the largest collegiate esports prize pool, the College’s team still competes with large universities, which in some cases — like the Cougars — recruit talented players with significant scholarships and professional practice facilities and equipment.
“League” pits teams of five against each other, as players control an individual character to fight, kill and topple objectives, like towers and inhibitors, in order to push down one or more of the three main lanes and destroy the opponent’s main structure, the Nexus.
The static lineup, which recruits via the CGC’s Facebook group, includes Kim in the top lane of the map, St Pierre who travels between the lanes in the “jungle,” freshman psychology major Fernando Trujillo in the middle lane, and Roberts and junior finance major Michal Kedzierski paired in the bottom lane.
While traditional sports teams have practice facilities and stadiums, the Lions starting five competes out of their own dorm rooms and off-campus houses in the second division of the Collegiate Starleague. There, they battle teams around the world for glory and to-be-announced prizes.
“I also think it’s harder to spectate this kind of sport and get a bigger audience,” Trujillo said. “This is something that we’re all doing from our own living areas, either off campus or on campus, versus actually going to a field at TCNJ and doing it in front of an audience.”
The “League” team isn’t the only Lions gaming group that’s found success at a national level: The CGC’s “Super Smash Bros. Melee” team defeated talented lineups from Rutgers University and more, as they traveled as far as New York City to earn second place in the Tri-State region of The Melee Games — the national collegiate circuit for “Melee.”
In the case of the “League” team, this win was a statement for the group that struggled to gain Student Government recognition in Fall 2014, as reported by The Signal.
“I’ve been doing CStar with TCNJ since my sophomore year,” Roberts said. “It wasn’t really organized at that point. It was kind of ‘find four people at TCNJ who play “League” and sign up.’ We did OK. We were middle of the table pretty consistently. We also entered a tournament to get into uLoL, which is the highest level (for non-Big-Ten teams), and we managed to get to the round of 16 in a 128-team tournament.”
Roberts said this is the first year the “League” team consolidated all of the most talented players into one roster.
Although not many students are familiar with the College’s competitive gaming success, St Pierre feels his interests are supported by his peers.
“I think there’s a friendly attitude toward all of it, so people are encouraged to be like a nerd, I guess,” St Pierre said. “As opposed to being told ‘That’s lame. Why are you doing that for?’ I think there’s a lot of encouragement for the Melee players, especially. It’s just a really fun game that people have been playing for a while.”
Both Roberts and St Pierre hope the team’s success will rejuvenate the CGC, which they feel is underutilized.
“I know there’s a lot more people that are interested in the games CGC endorses and promotes than the people that are in CGC,” St Pierre said. “I think it’d be awesome to get more people joining the club.”
As the Lions prepare for playoffs, Roberts, who makes most of the tactical decisions in and out of the game, believes studying film and scouting opponents, like in any team sport, will be key.
“I actually think a big factor to winning both of those games (against the Cougars) was our champion select,” Roberts said. “Before the game, I’ll do a bit of research just to see what they play and what strategies we can use. They played into our hands both draft phases. We got the champions that we wanted and denied the champions they were best at.”
While winning it all is the ultimate goal, Roberts, who graduates this spring, hopes the team will improve even more in the years to come.
“I know at the very highest level, you would need official university recognition, but we haven’t really opted into that level yet,” he said. “I’m hopeful for next year — I won’t be here anymore — but (the team’s manager) is working to make sure next year we’ll be competing at a higher level than we competed at this year.”
Roberts is the team’s highest ranked player: He’s currently ranked in “Challenger,” which is the top 200 in North America, compared to the game’s 100-million-plus player population. But St Pierre and company are all close behind. When St Pierre joked he was ranked higher than Roberts at one point, Roberts fired back in a display of the team’s light-hearted rapport.
“You were challenger for a week in the beginning of the season, before anyone played,” Roberts jabbed back to St Pierre’s boast. “Back when every game was plus 26 (ranked points), minus eight. He took advantage. You’re one of those fake Challengers.”
Like any team, the CGC consists of a bunch of guys with a common interest, pushing each other through adversity and toward greatness. Regardless of whether or not it’s a videogame or a traditional sport, the “League” team continues to put the College on the map in a positive light.
Although Roberts never became a professional player, he’s happy with where he stands at the game’s peak.
“I’ve been playing ‘League of Legends’ since early high school,” he said. “Over that time I’ve definitely grown a lot and participated on a lot of teams. I don’t know how much time I’ll be able to commit to this after college, but it’s definitely been a journey for me.”