2020 UCI Esports Conference Recap

Earlier this month, the University of California, Irvine hosted its annual esports conference. The two-day conference was hosted by UCI in collaboration with NASEF and the National Academy of Engineering and featured guests from all over the gaming and esports industry to talk about various subjects from diversity to education to research.

This conference, however, was a bit different. Covid-19 has changed many things around the United States, and the conference was no different. Instead of hundreds of people converging at the UCI campus, attendees partook in the conference digitally.

Last year, there were over 300 attendees from nine countries, but this year saw an increase in both numbers due to the digital nature.

“Attendance was up around 30% this year,” said Mark Deppe, Director of UCI Esports. “With the addition of the NASEF-sponsored High School and Middle School Track, we saw a lot more K-12 educators in attendance. I was pleasantly surprised by the strong attendance given the Zoom fatigue that many of us are experiencing,” he added.

It’s no surprise that more educators were able to attend the digital conference. Traveling to Southern California for two days is just not feasible for many educators and potential attendees. In fact, this year saw the addition of attendees from Singapore and Japan, despite the time zone difference.

As the U.S. works to get the Covid-19 pandemic under control, it has become increasingly important to hold digital events like the UCI esports conference to help people stay connected to each other.

Samantha Anton, Chief Operating Officer for NASEF, had this to say, “I would say that under these conditions, the UCI Esports Conference was able to re-create the benefits of the in-person conference in a way that allowed for even more people to attend without worrying about having to take time off or travel.” 

One of the major focuses of the conference were the two keynotes on diversity and inclusion and racism in esports. This year featured Morgan Romine, Director of Initiatives at AnyKey, who talked about how to foster diversity and inclusion in esports. 

“The conference has always had a keynote on diversity because the games and esports industries really struggle with creating opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities,” Mark Deppe said. “Given the civil unrest of 2020, the ESC planning committee wanted to put some additional focus on the experience of Black folks in esports.  We don't have a good solution to our diversity problem and need to talk about it more, not less.”

It’s commendable that the conference makes this a major part of the conference every year. Throughout major esports, diversity and inclusion are serious problems that we have yet to tackle. Esports in the U.S. are still largely a privilege for those that can spare the time to grind the ladder and not worry about supporting themselves financially at the same time. Others still have issues getting the proper hardware and/or fast enough internet connections to compete. Conversations, like the ones at the UCI Esports Conference, help highlight these problems and stimulate discussion around how to tackle them.

The conference also covered many research opportunities in the gaming and esports space. There were panels on the physical and mental health of players in collegiate esports, how games like Minecraft can be used for ground-breaking research and education, and a fascinating talk from Eoin Conroy and Adam Toth about computer mouse weight and its effect on target acquisition.

Finally, the conference touched heavily on education and esports. NASEF’s mission is to provide opportunities for ALL students to use esports as a platform to acquire critical communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills needed to thrive in work and in life.

Panels at the conference highlighted how educators are currently using gaming and esports to teach their students and engage them on their level.

“You’ll hear people often say, “meet kids where they are” and yet not many people are willing to actually do that,” Holly Steele, STEM administrator of the Orange County Department of Education said. “It’s hard because, for many of our educators, it’s not where they are. But we owe it to our students. It’s also an industry that was an incredible diversity of career options across so many different sectors. That shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of the long-term impacts on career awareness and development.” 

It’s a common thing to hear from parents and educators when talking about connecting with students. Through NASEF’s own interviews with teachers in Miami-Dade County, we’ve learned how teachers are finding students more engaged in everything from programming to information technology to graphic design once a game or esports is added into the curriculum.

“Embracing video games and esports in school creates a bridge from educators to students that allows for learning, career development, and mentoring,” Mark Deppe told us.

With education and social interactions becoming more digital every year, it’s no wonder students and some educators have embraced new and digital solutions to engage students in academics. Scholastic esports have been able to provide students and educators new ways to connect with each other and learn about nearly every type of job a student could imagine. 

One thing is for sure, the conference covered numerous subjects about diversity, research, education, and what comes next, but it is only the beginning. The conference is an opportunity for like-minded people to come together each year and discuss new developments in the gaming and esports community, and, in the words of Samantha Anton, “It’s great to see that, as we all cope with the challenges of 2020, we are still asking the right questions to steer esports in the right direction.”

To learn more about career opportunities in esports, check out our Careers in Esports blog series.

To learn more about the National Academy of Engineering, check them out at nae.edu.

To stay up to date on the latest for future UCI esports conferences, follow them on Twitter @UCIESC.

If you or your organization would like to collaborate with NASEF, please contact us by email at info@nasef.org.