NCAA
Yifan Wu 27d

A college esports love triangle lies at the heart of varsity League play

esports, NCAA - Other

Robert Morris top laner Derek "West Coast Carry" Micheau shook his opponents' hands and then his head before slowly inching away from the spotlight with his four teammates. The crowd was cheering for their division rival, Maryville University, the squad that erased a massive early deficit to advance to the finals of the League of Legends Collegiate Championships in May.

Half an hour passed. Micheau entered the media room with his coach and a teammate. His father and brother followed. Micheau sighed, staring into the blank walls.

"It's my fault. I obviously didn't perform that well," Micheau said as he ran fingers through his hair. "I'm a senior. This is my last chance to win this for my school, and I blew it."

Five months later, Micheau was on Maryville's roster. His four teammates and head coach have either joined rival teams or dropped out of school with hopes of competing in professional leagues.

The roster shuffle might sound like it's straight out of an SEC football offseason, but the turnover that cut into the Robert Morris roster this past summer might be even more intriguing. Two of the top college programs in the country got even stronger thanks to RMU's losses, and unlike in the NCAA, all of these players could compete again right away.

Yes, even in college esports, there is transfer drama.

RMU made headlines and history in 2014 for being the first university in the U.S. to offer varsity scholarships to esports athletes. Two Missouri schools, Maryville University and Columbia College, soon followed suit with their own varsity esports programs.

When the League of Legends Campus Series season began in January, the trio found themselves as the North Region's top teams. During online qualifiers, No. 1 seed RMU swept No. 4 Columbia College before falling to No. 2 Maryville.

RMU avenged the online loss later by beating Maryville at the Midwest Campus Clash, a local area network (LAN) event hosted by Columbia College. Their third and final showdown at the North American League of Legends Championship Series arena in Los Angeles ended the season for Robert Morris as well as Micheau's hopes of bringing the championship to Chicago.

Micheau graduated and thought about pursuing either further education or competing in League of Legends. He said the quality of education mattered more in his decision, and school had always come first: His father, Douglas, always wore Derek's Deans List sweatshirt at tournaments.

Micheau checked both boxes by enrolling in Maryville's MBA program with a focus in marketing and joining the defending champ as a substitute top laner. To his surprise, William "Mordio" Yang, his jungler teammate from Robert Morris, joined him at the St. Louis school as well.

That wasn't all. RMU coach Drake Porter had interviewed for and accepted a position at Columbia College, and soon AD carry Zachary "BuKZacH" Lapham joined him. Porter said a meeting with Bryan Curtis, the assistant athletic director at Columbia, drove him to make the move.

"I really appreciated everything we did at RMU, but it's just that esports at RMU is really separate from the athletics department, and I never talked to the AD," Porter said. "At Columbia, we have meetings with the AD a couple times of a week, and we have aligned goals. Long-term ones."

The risk paid off when he and Lapham led Columbia College to its first LAN title at DreamHack Denver on Oct. 21. Porter said the team wants to make a bigger statement, and it is not particularly concerned with teams like University of Toronto, another national semifinalist, or his former employer. Maryville, the two-time national champion, is the Cougars' target.

After the mass exodus, Robert Morris transitioned to rebuild mode and adjusted expectations for tournament placement this season, according to program coordinator Jose Espin.

"Right now, we are definitely an underdog," Espin said. "Past three years we were in the top four, which is unbelievable. We are not an all-star challenger squad anymore. ... The players feel there's no expectations, so there's not a lot of pressure. Our players can just focus on improving now."

Micheau said he thinks the roster shake-up made this season more intriguing.

"Although I think the talent got more concentrated at the top, I think collegiate is developing into a Warriors-Cavs rivalry," Micheau said. "Only this time it's CC vs. MU."

For Porter, the grand prize is more than showering in confetti after winning it all or representing North America in the International College Cup. It is the growth of the collegiate esports scene.

"In two, three years, collegiate esports is gonna explode," Porter said. "It's all going to grow so fast in terms of infrastructure, the talents and viewership, too. The storyline is absolutely amazing, and this is going to help all of us."

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