LOS ANGELES -- As the gold and silver confetti settled on the stage of Riot Games' LCS Arena and Maryville University's League of Legends players walked to center stage to claim their trophy, their opponents from the Western University of Ontario walked offstage quietly.
This is Western's second year at the College League of Legends Championship. Last year, they were an unlikely quarterfinalist that was knocked out by the University of Maryland. This year, Western upset defending champions the University of California-Irvine to make it all the way to the finals.
Both times, they did it with no support from their university.
"It's just kind of a group of us," top laner Alex "Gorica" Gorica said. "We literally don't have any support from our school. They don't recognize us as a club; it's pretty much just us. We just luckily had the talent at this school: We found each other online, and here we are."
What eventually become the Western League of Legends team that stood onstage at the finals Sunday started years earlier and has continued to improve through the sheer talent and dedication of their players.
"Over the past three years, it's been many failures," AD carry Kyle "Shorthop" Raposo said. "We made it here last year and got knocked out in the quarterfinals because we didn't really have that winning mentality."
This year was different. Shorthop said the team started to believe in their own talent during their regional conference run this year, where Western defeated Harrisburg University and the University of Waterloo. Those victories gave Western an automatic bid to the quarterfinals this week and another shot at an on-stage victory.
"It was just the eight of us with a passionate drive to win and to show that we are talented players," Shorthop said. "We can compete with some of the best while getting our education, and some people have pro aspirations as well."
Every step of the way, Western has had to beat teams with significantly more infrastructure and investment. The most impressive of these victories was their semifinals win over UCI. Gorica said his team pulled off the upset by focusing on picking champions the players could thrive on regardless of the matchup.
"We did a lot of prep work," Gorica said. "Our draft was something we worked a lot on with our coach. Honestly, we just played our best. We all played comfort, pretty much. Going into the match, we just played what we knew best because we knew we could beat them at our best."
The University of Western Ontario upsets defending College League of Legends Championship
The University of Western Ontario upsets defending College League of Legends Championship winner UCI in the semifinals. They will play Maryville University tomorrow in the finals. Video by Emily Rand
"Everyone had dreamed of making it to the final and trying to win it," Shorthop said. "It's difficult to describe that moment, but I was just so, so proud of everybody who has spent years trying to push and push. Taking on the champions of the tournament with massive backing from their school, it just shows that we're also the real deal."
Shorthop said he and the rest of his team, along with their coach/manager, are the ones responsible for their scheduling, setting up scrimmages and ensuring that everyone is keeping up with their studies at the same time, all while working on their in-game mechanics and trying to prove to their university that they're a club worth sanctioning.
Unlike varsity programs such as Maryville and UCI, Western doesn't have any one person dedicated to any of those tasks.
"We all take care of each other in a sense," Shorthop said. "It's another task that realistically should be dealt with management or whatever that might be, but we have to take care of ourselves, and it takes time out of our days, but ultimately we have that burning desire to win, and we're willing to put whatever we have into it to win if our school won't recognize us."
Shorthop and the rest of Western are hoping that Sunday's finals appearance and the team's victory over a scholarship-sponsored program in the semis and regional play will be enough to convince Western administration to throw some support behind the team.
"We're hoping," Shorthop said. "We're trying to show that we're not just talented players but talented individuals academically and good people at Western. Hopefully they see us. We love our school, we love the game and hopefully it works out."
Their dedication hasn't gone unrecognized by their opponents or others in the collegiate community.
"Oh man, I might ask them for advice if they can make it all the way here," Maryville jungler Andrew "ckg" Smith said of his final opponents. "It's just crazy how you can just have five guys at a school and a coach that can come in and form a good team."
Despite falling 3-0 in the finals to Maryville, Shorthop said he sees this year as yet another step forward as Western looks toward next year.
"We all at least have another year," Shorthop said. "We're probably going to push through it again. East Conference continuously gets more and more competitive, so we know we need to keep working hard.
"We're obviously not satisfied with losing in the final. We want to take it all the way. Beating UCI was an incredible feat, and we fell short in the finals, but the way we look at it -- and the first thing I said onstage to my team when we got up -- is that it's only up from here. We just have to look forward to a bright future."