Cougars, Saints leaders gear up for final showdown

Columbia College League of Legends senior strategic analyst Drake Porter, left, and head coach Doung Pham talk during the Midwest Campus Clash on April 7 in Columbia, Missouri. Kaci Smart/Provided by Columbia College

COLUMBIA, Missouri -- In the story of the rise of collegiate esports, if either Drake Porter or Dan "clerkie" Clerke is the hero, then the other is his foil.

The two of them are, Porter said, "polar opposites," even in the way they dress. Porter wears a uniform of dark slacks, black dress shoes and a tie-less, cool-colored dress shirt -- all business. Clerke presents himself far more casually: At the Midwest Campus Clash tournament on April 7 in Columbia, Missouri, Clerke sported a short beard, gray joggers, low-rise sneakers, a black baseball cap and round Gucci glasses with a long black hoodie that fell below his waistline. He has an easygoing slouch and a slight smirk -- this, after all, is fun.

If you hadn't seen their Twitter scuffles, you'd think they'd be incomparable. Porter is an analyst and coach for a college team; Clerke is the director an entire collegiate program and the general manager of eUnited, a professional esports brand. Regardless of their particular administrative roles, Porter and Clerke are the faces of a heated rivalry between collegiate League of Legends' two most dominant teams: the Columbia College Cougars and the Maryville University Saints, respectively.

The schools are only a two-hour drive away from each other, if that, and have gone blow-for-blow with each other for the past year -- both on Summoner's Rift and in online trash talk.

At the College League of Legends Championship on Thursday through Saturday in Los Angeles, this rivalry will come to a head.

Just a few months ago, the Cougars were the presumptive favorites to win this year's College League of Legends Championship, despite Maryville winning the past two titles. With a talented roster and the wins to match, Porter's team ran through the competition in the regular season. The Cougars placed third at an LAN event in Wichita, Kansas, and nearly beat a semipro squad in the winners bracket. The Saints, meanwhile, finished tied for seventh.

Going into the regional playoffs for College League of Legends, there were the Cougars, and then there was everyone else. Columbia College was unbeaten in the regular season and looked untouchable.

Until the North regional finals, that is.

Maryville swept Columbia College 3-0 to advance to the College League of Legends finals in Los Angeles. The Cougars, meanwhile, had to play their way through the play-in portion of the bracket -- those games went smoothly, but the loss to the Saints stung. And it wasn't the only loss, either.

Just two days later, the Cougars had another shot at the Saints thanks to the Campus Clash event. But Maryville won that match, too, and suddenly Columbia College looked more vulnerable than ever.

For Porter, the June finals are a shot at redemption. For Clerke, it's business as usual. A first ever title for the Cougars, or a third straight for the Saints.

But there's more to the two most interesting men in college esports than an online rivalry.


Porter was born in Garland, Texas, a "run-down" suburb of Dallas.

"If you grow up in Garland," he said, "you don't really go anywhere."

But Porter did go somewhere, and he did so quickly. He started coaching Team Coast, a now-defunct professional esports organization, in 2015 -- around the time he turned 17. He joined the staff at Robert Morris University, the first varsity esports program in the U.S., at 18. And then, in January 2017, he moved to Columbia, Missouri, to lead the Cougars.

"I knew I wanted to do something different," Porter said. I knew that I wanted to accomplish a lot by a young age."

And now, at 20 years old, he's the leader of one of the best college esports teams in the country, despite being younger than some of his players.

Porter's coaching goals eventually lead back to pro teams, too, but he said a rare condition in both his wrists -- Kienböck's disease, which leads to the death of one of the small bones in the wrist -- is making his future in the profession uncertain.

"It sometimes feels like I have no hands," Porter said. "I've had days where I couldn't even go into my office because my wrists hurt so bad. ... I just felt the need to like lay down and lay on my wrists and take tons of pain meds all day."

Porter said he started getting discomfort in his wrists when he was coaching for RMU. This season, he said he had to get weekly cortisone shots just to be able to work all day without feeling immense pain.

On top of the personal discomfort, Porter said the condition affects his coaching, as he can no longer take notes for long periods of time.

"When people think of coaching, they think of me standing behind the players, telling them what they should or should not learn from a certain game," Porter said. "I'm pretty sure every single coach on the face of the planet uses notes, and so not being able to take down information is just really, really difficult."

Porter said he doesn't want the condition to be seen as an excuse. Still, the effects of the condition on Porter are real, and they have him questioning his future in esports.

"I've put a lot of thought into quitting," Porter said. "Honestly, I don't think I'll ever quit just because of how I am as a person. But really, it's kind of just a condition where you accept the outcome and you just kind of live with it and deal with it.

"If anything, it's almost motivated me a little bit more to try and do more in esports while I can as well. I don't really have a plan. I think the plan's just to try and do as much as I can while I can do it."

For now, he's making the most of his time in Columbia.

"I have pretty much my dream job," Porter said. "I'm not where I want to be, necessarily. Like, I want to be the best coach that I know I can be. That's my objective, and I don't think I'm there yet. But I'm happy with the process. I'm happy with how I'm coming along."

Still, Porter and his team couldn't help but have an emotional reaction to the losses at first. Porter said the Sunday after Campus Clash was an extremely hard day for him.

"I was kind of given everything I needed this year, and things still didn't work out as planned," Porter said. "I've realized that we still have another chance."


Clerke grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, and spent his summers on his family's island near Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada. His dad, who is Canadian, played hockey "at a high level," Clerke said, so he put Clerke in the sport as a kid.

"It's kind of a sin to not play hockey if you're Canadian," Clerke said.

But he wasn't any good. So when he got home from playing hockey, he played Call of Duty 4 ProMod competitively.

Clerke said he was failing out of engineering school at Missouri S&T when he decided to drop out and start Enemy, a professional esports organization he managed from 2012-2016 with his friends Robert "Chachi" Stemmler and James "JR3" Ryan. He designed the logo first: a stylized smiling black devil's head with red eyes. The student-turned-esports entrepreneur had struggled with addiction issues when he was at Missouri S&T, but the creation of Enemy turned his life around.

"I went and I looked in the mirror and I was just like -- it was one of those epiphany moments," he said. "It sounds so cliche, but I was just kinda like, 'I f---ing hate myself right now. Let's change this.' And I just did."

Clerke said he worked 50 hours a week at a deli to fund the program, and six months after dropping out at Missouri S&T, he enrolled at Maryville University to study business. Clerke's counselor at Maryville, who knew about Enemy, put Clerke in front of the school's president, Mark Lombardi. Lombardi wanted to start an esports program on campus and asked Clerke what he needed in order to make it happen.

"If you give me X amount of scholarship support," Clerke recalled. He said he told Lombardi, "I will bring you an undefeated season."

Sure enough, Maryville went 40-0 in 2016 and won the League of Legends Championship at that year's Collegiate StarLeague title at DreamHack Austin.

Enemy was relegated to the Challenger Series soon after Maryville's win, but Clerke said his involvement with the Saints put him in touch with "big figures" -- non-endemic people interested in the esports scene. He met Adam Stein and James Daquino, investors who founded eSports Entertainment, the esports organization behind eUnited. In 2016, Enemy disbanded, and Stein and Daquino hired Clerke to manage eUnited.

At 24, Clerke now does both jobs from his office on Maryville's campus.

"I've won major professional championships and eight titles, and I've won over $3 million in the last three years being a manager and recruiter and scout for teams," Clerke said. "It's not because I'm someone that watches every game of every esport and knows every patch. ... I focus more on the person than the game. And I think that that's something that a lot of people in esports overlook."

Clerke said he remembers seeing Porter's messages in a Skype group for scrimmage coordination in the days when Clerke still ran Enemy and Porter started working with Team Coast. Clerke noticed that Porter was outspoken, but he didn't think much of Porter's comments until Clerke's first year at Maryville, when Porter was a coach at Robert Morris University.

"We have, like, ex-[Challenger Series] players," Clerke said, "and this dude was still going off on Twitter about how much we suck, and how RMU is the best team, and that nobody's ever gonna touch them, and that he's the best coach, and he's playing '4D chess' and all this stuff."

Clerke and Porter have argued regularly on Twitter in the past, and Porter's tweets have earned him a reputation as a cocky loudmouth on that medium, but Clerke said he actually appreciates Porter's public persona.

"It's hard to make collegiate super interesting right now until all the big schools get involved, so it's up to people like Drake to kind of make a storyline out of something," Clerke said. "I think he's doing a great job. I think that it's something that collegiate needs. I think it's something that keeps it fresh."

Porter said he was always intentional about building these storylines. In fact, Clerke and Porter have often chatted cordially in direct messages as they were publicly arguing.

"When we talk to each other [in private], we're always super respectful," Clerke said. "But, like, I guess we kind of put on this rivalry facade to everybody."

That's not to say they've been faking it, though: Porter said he's always believed what he has said in his tweets, and Clerke said Porter's tweets legitimately get under his skin.

"He has a lot of balls to be like, 'We're gonna sweep this year. No problem. One hundred percent,'" Clerke said. "I can't bring myself to do that. I couldn't take the flame if we didn't. But he does. He does it. He owns up to it when he loses, and he's confident before the games. So I respect it."

Now, though, Porter said he has started to dial back his Twitter trash talk, which he said was a product of the fact that he used to treat coaching no different than playing.

"I got into coaching because I love competing," Porter said. "I was very much putting myself out there, being in the spotlight, being the center of attention, trying to trash-talk, all that. And I've kind of realized, like, I don't really enjoy that. I don't gain satisfaction from that."


When Columbia beat Maryville during the regular season, the Saints were not at full strength. They had their starting mid laner playing AD carry, their backup mid laner starting and a support player in the jungle.

At the North finals, when they lost 3-0, the Cougars faced Maryville's final roster.

Columbia's undefeated record didn't tell the whole story of its season, either. The Cougars won plenty of games with their star-studded lineup, but they struggled outside of the game. Tempers flared, and communication issues away from the Rift eked their way onto it.

"Esports are inherently far more emotionally engaging than traditional sports," Porter said. "Every single practice, no matter what you're doing, you're winning or losing, which is something you don't encounter as a basketball player."

And all that winning and losing, all the ups and downs, can also take a toll.

"I think what Maryville does really well that I've kind of, like, not given them enough credit for is they've really built an environment where those kids feel like a family," Porter said. "If you don't have the culture that will breed a championship team, it doesn't really matter what else you're doing."

During Maryville's first game at Midwest Campus Clash, Clerke said that he and the others from Maryville had joked about all coming to MWCC dressed in Drake's signature business-casual uniform.

"I do really wanna see him do well. I wanna see him on a pro team. But he's a really cocky kid," Clerke said. "When I feel the worst for him is, like -- I have my pro team; this is what he does, full-time. So like last year when we beat him when he was on RMU, 3-0, like, you could just see how, like, hurt he was by that. Like, how absolutely crushed he was that he lost. So, like, that's when I feel the worst for him. It's like I just wanna go up and hug him, but I can't because we're supposed to not like each other.

"But that's the s--- that I respect about him. He could be lackadaisical about losing, right? But like he takes it so, so seriously."


Near the end of the last game in Columbia's loss to Maryville, the few Maryville fans in attendance screamed with excitement.

Porter, sitting on the opposite side of the gym, glanced in their direction. He clenched his jaw, opened his leather-bound notebook and jotted something down, using the shorthand he has developed to deal with his difficulties writing by hand when he doesn't have access to a laptop.

For a moment, things started to look like they might turn around. He lost his composure and shouted.

"Let's go!"

But it was just a moment. Again, his team made a mistake. He slammed the notebook shut and buried his face in it.

More screams rang out from Maryville's table on the other side of the crowd. Porter clenched his jaw again, frowned angrily and nodded slowly.

"Ugh. God damn it, man."

When he knew the game was lost, he didn't bother waiting to see the rest of it through.

"Let's go," Porter said to Cougars coach Duong Pham. Pham watched him get up and walk backstage but stayed where he was and turned back to the screen.

When it was all over -- when Clerke had run up onstage to pose in the bright spotlights with the trophy and the giant $15,000 check and the Maryville players -- the Cougars stood in a loose group in the dark off to the side of the stage, hidden from the crowd by a wall of curtains. Porter stood slightly away from the team, quietly staring at the ground in front of him. He paused to gather his thoughts, then spoke at a more measured pace than normal.

"A big aspect of my job in coaching is to identify issues before they arise -- even whenever they don't show themselves in practice -- and that's a lot of what this is," Porter said. "Like, we have an outrageously talented roster, where all we have to do is be able to unlock that talent.

When it came down to it, Porter and the players emphasized in the aftermath of the losses, Columbia just hasn't been good at performing under pressure. In practice, Porter said, the Cougars are one of the best teams in collegiate, but they have trouble being the best when there's a trophy and a title on the line.

"I think that, uh, Maryville is very good at stepping up whenever it matters," Porter said. "And, uh, that's our weakness."

Now, the work both teams have put in over the past month will be put to the test. Porter called the matchup a "50/50 split," with the winner likely hoisting the trophy Sunday.

"The one thing I'll give Maryville credit for is whenever they lost to us in the regular season, they didn't just all jump ship and give up," Porter said. "They just focused on how they could beat us in playoffs. And so now we're kind of adopting the same mentality as to what we can do for championships and staying humble and staying focused. And I've kind of adopted the same mentality as well."