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Fearless: Columbia College Likes Their Chances in uLoL Campus Series 2017

A year ago, little Columbia College in Missouri announced the creation of a varsity League of Legends team. Now, they are announcing their readiness for collegiate League of Legends’ highest level of competition. Based on recent scrimmage results against semi-professional and top collegiate teams, CC’s players and coaches feel that only their own condition stands between them and a uLoL uLoL Campus Series championship. “When they [the players] play their best, they will not lose,” said head coach Duong Pham in an interview. “The question is, what do we do to make sure we always play at the top of our game. We will come in first if we play every game our best.”

Image Credit – Kaci Smart, Columbia College Public Relations

Origins

As Columbia College’s Director of Esports Bryan Curtis told CSL last year, the team started with the search for a head coach and settled on Duong Pham, who had worked with the college already for five years as a programmer and analyst, with Matt Meininger as assistant coach. Pham spoke candidly about the challenges of starting up a program from scratch. “Coming into this job there were no guidelines,” he explained. “…but I have a background coaching people.” He also noted that the heavy media attention when the program started made recruitment much easier by generating buzz. Plenty of players applied without forcing the staff to do a great deal of legwork.

Less legwork did not mean less recruitment work, however. Particularly in the case of Jonathan “Hollywood” Song, a mid laner looking to transfer from the University of Pikeville, another scholarship-based program, it was difficult to make a concrete recruitment case for CC’s emerging program. “With Jonathan, it was actually challenging to show him that we are legit,” coach Pham revealed. “…there just wasn’t anything concrete to show him. It was all about promises.” To bring players like Song around, Pham and Meininger’s sincerity and commitment to the building process proved key in bringing potential recruits around.

“From minute one I found that Columbia College…it was a lot more inviting…I felt like I was brought into the fold very quickly.”

“I remember asking [Pham] like twenty questions in my first email,” said Song, whose father had seen articles about CC and recommended it. “The key thing that sold me was the early recruitment process…and the coaches are very nice. They care about us as players and as people.” These sentiments were echoed by other members of CC’s starting five. RJ “ArJay” Bohnak, the team’s jungler explained that he was looking at all of the scholarship schools for League of Legends, but, “From minute one I found that Columbia College…it was a lot more inviting…I felt like I was brought into the fold very quickly.”

The team’s bottom lane duo, a pair of college transfers, are team captain and ADC Connor “CC Artemis” Doyle, formerly of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and support Dean “CC Dean” Wood, formerly of the College of Western Idaho. Doyle ended up at CC by way of a fortuitous message from a freelance scout in solo queue. He and Pham discussed their visions of the future and found that they shared many hopes there, and so Doyle came to Columbia. Wood’s path was also fortuitous, but a bit more unlikely. A high level solo queue player with no esports experience, he had actually applied to a few schools in Oregon in his quest to get out of his home state. When he searched for LoL scholarships on Google on the suggestion of a friend, he happened upon Columbia, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The last spot to be finalized on the starting roster was in the top lane. Despite being born with only one hand, Ian “MistyToast” Alexander climbed to Master rank in NA solo queue six months ago and hosted an AMA. The post was very well-received by the community, and his father forwarded the link to Columbia College. The coaching staff responded favorably, and despite some early friction, Alexander has become Pham’s pick as the team’s X-factor. “I saw something in Ian,” Pham reasoned. “…he’s unpredictable. He can do things easily where other people have problems…I thought that if we used Ian right in the way he is strongest, we would have a good chance of winning, and it turned out to be that way.”

In this way, Pham and Meininger had a team put together by July, attracting transfers and new esports talent with promises of future success and support from the college. However, putting the roster together was only part of the team building process, and CC’s confidence is derived from results rather than rosters.

Image Credit – Kaci Smart, Columbia College Public Relations

Chemistry and Kinetic Energy

In order to prepare for uLoL, Columbia College’s coaching staff has crafted a particular practice regimen for its players focused on building in-game and out-of-game continuity and respect. The school has scrimmaged against top collegiate programs, such as Robert Morris (IL) and the University of British Columbia eSports Association, and, according to CC’s coaches and players, a number of North American semi-professional teams. The high quality of practice is augmented by regimental decisions on the part of the staff that have helped CC grow exponentially since the team’s inception. As of the end of the uLoL preseason, the squad had lost only one best-of-three in CSL’s preseason competition, and it has left the men from Missouri feeling very good about their championship chances.

The team’s practice regimen alternates between intense and relaxed periods of practice, similarly to some cardio exercises such as spinning. The alternation between intense and relaxed periods of practice helps the team combat burnout and, they hope, will help them peak when uLoL arrives. “It’s really critical to not burnout when you’re at playoffs or a really important match,” said Doyle. “[The tailored regimen] allows us to peak just at the right time…so that…is a huge advantage for us.”

The regimen also allows the players to concentrate on other aspects of college life. “I feel like it’s made such a difference for me,” declared Bohnak. “It’s allowed me to balance League and my social life and school. Obviously I still play a lot of league on the side, but I have time to be social and concentrate on school.” He also noted that Robert Morris (IL) practiced five hours per day minimum, and that he felt the tailored regimen at CC was more effective and more efficient. For Wood, who is new to the competitive environment of esports, this has been very important. “I’m one that gets burnt out quite easily,” he explained. “…having balance is important. League used to be my hobby and now it’s my sport.”

“Based on scrimmage results, even if we play at about 50% efficiency, we will probably body every single team we play against on stage.”

The real proof has been in the pudding. The team has only dropped one best-of-three series during the preseason, and according to the players and Pham, they are now consistently beating semi-professional teams. “We’ve had our ups and downs…” said Wood. “Just looking back at how far we’ve grown through that, we’re crushing amateur teams and we’re a collegiate team…it’s really amazing.” The regimen’s focus on the mental health of the players has yielded immediate, tangible dividends. Doyle summarized the results with examples: “After losing a long, hard-fought game [in a best-of series], if we follow that up with a really strong 17-19 minute victory, you can feel the tilt [on the other team].”

With results backing them up, CC’s entire program feels that the uLoL championship is a tangible goal in their inaugural season. “I mean, if we transfer 50% of what we do in scrimmages, we’ll be the best team in the collegiate league,” said Bohnak, candidly. “Based on scrimmage results, even if we play at about 50% efficiency, we will probably body every single team we play against on stage.” Of course, scrimmage results do not always translate into success in big matches, but CC’s team feels that other teams suffer much more from stage fright than they will. They engage in weekly mental training that includes meditation to help prepare them for when the games count, and maintain a standard of brutal honesty tempered with respect during VoD review. Everyone in the program is confident that they are adequately prepared to fight their way into the spotlight and handle the pressures that will come once they arrive. When push comes to shove, Columbia College believes that their training will take over.

Image Credit – Kaci Smart, Columbia College Public Relations

Conclusion

The final ingredient in any successful program is support. The Columbia College team has received widespread endorsement from within their college’s community. “The one thing that stood out to me when I came to visit CC was just how interested the faculty and the students were in having an esports program,” said Wood. “Just having that support increases our performance. Growing up, video games have always had a negative connotation within my family so coming to CC and having it be the opposite of that has been surprising.” The curiosity and inquisitiveness, no doubt aided by the support of the school’s president, Dr. Scott Dalrymple, added to an environment of anticipation for the start of uLoL in January.

It is impossible to say how Columbia College will do when uLoL arrives, but the speed with which their program has come into being and the success that they have achieved in the preseason make them a potential dark horse in collegiate League of Legends’ biggest tournament. With an interested campus and a dedicated coaching staff behind them and the infectious confidence of the players, the preseason in Missouri is truly a time of great expectations.

Have a dark horse pick of your own for January? Hit us up on Twitter and Facebook to let us know how you think uLoL will shake out in 2017!

 

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