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UC Irvine's e-sports facility aims to train pro players

Could your college open the next official e-sports gym for scholarship gamers?

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If you're a college athlete, you spend hours every day in the gym. But what if you're attending a university on an e-sports scholarship? Where do you go to train and bond with teammates who, like you, aim to be the best of the best in multiplayer video games like League of Legends and Overwatch?

The University of California at Irvine thinks it has an answer: its very own e-sports arena and student lounge. It's a physical space where students go to take a break from the rigors of studying, throw down in competitive games, and maybe make some new friends while they're at it.

At 3,500 square feet, the UCI E-Sports Arena isn't particularly large, with 80 computers filling the tightly packed stations. But Jesse Wang, president of The Association of Gamers (TAG) at the college and coordinator for the space, envisions this as just the beginning.

"We're hoping to one day build a gaming facility that hosts more than 80 computers at a time," Wang said. "I think this is going to be a really good demo for us to show the campus and show the world that this is something gamers and students across UCI and across the nation want to see."

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The ribbon cutting ceremony for the UC Irvine E-Sports Arena drew hundreds of students excited for the space's opening.

Ashley Esqueda/CNET

UCI began offering partial scholarships to the tune of $15,000 each to gamers last year, a first for collegiate e-sports in North America, and the school continues to show its support for the pro gaming scene with the opening of an on-campus gaming cafe for training and other team exercises.

Traditional training as an e-sports player can be incredibly isolating: wake up, play a few rounds alone at your PC, attend classes, rinse, repeat. Talking to teammates happens over headsets, which isn't always the best way to connect and create camaraderie. But taking time to bond outside of games subtracts valuable time that could be used to train and create competitive strategies. With this new location, UC Irvine hopes to foster more socialization among both its scholarship gamers and regular students alike.

E-sports have already been fueling the rebirth of the LAN cafe, and this is another branch of that thinking. Gamers, regardless of scholarship status, tend to pick up skills like team building, coordination and precision strategies that come in handy once they graduate and head into the workplace. Creating a space where socialization is almost unavoidable brings a much-needed dimension to gamers' college experience. Indeed, gamers uninterested in joining the Greek system or other clubs on campus can finally get a college social experience designed for them.

The space grew out of a collaboration between the university and TAG. Sponsorships and other funding kept the $250,000 effort cost-neutral to UCI -- a notable accomplishment for a state-funded university -- and it aims to generate revenue via hourly fees for student use. Students can visit the space and reserve a station with a high-end gaming PC for $4 per hour. The profits will not only be used for upkeep of the space and administrative costs, but also will be earmarked for research grants and donations to UCI's hospital.

After seeing hundreds of students rushing the doors after the official ribbon-cutting ceremony, though, an expansion might be on the horizon sooner than anyone expected.

Riot Games, iBuyPowerPC, Logitech and Vertagear sponsor various parts of the arena. Oomba sponsors a shoutcasting booth at the space, both for pro event casts and as a place where journalism students can learn the art of casting, if they're interested.

Custom software on the computers offers a wide variety of multiplayer games: from hardcore arena strategy like League of Legends and Dota 2, to various Blizzard titles (including Overwatch and Hearthstone), shooters like Counterstrike: Go, and less frenetic fare such as Minecraft and Rocket League. It's a massive lineup, and even though UCI currently only offers scholarships for League of Legends, it plans to expand its e-sports scholarship program to other games. There's also a "Console & Community Corner" where clubs and groups can book meetings or events, and a "Competition Corner" for scholarship teams to scrimmage and work out new strategies while students watch.

When students begin the process of choosing which college they'd like to attend, amenities can make or break a selection. UC Irvine could well see a lot of potential students interested in attending because of its e-sports arena, so take note, college campus presidents. An e-sports space could just be the deciding factor for a budding e-sports superstar searching for the right school.

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