Sean Pendergast

Wrapping Up the ESPN Collegiate Esports Championships at Comicpalooza

Broadcasters and Analysts during the Collegiate Esports Championship.
Broadcasters and Analysts during the Collegiate Esports Championship. Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images
Comicpalooza and ESPN brought the inaugural Collegiate Esports Championships to Houston with a spectacular live studio arena and a Twitch stream viewed by thousands.

The event was the first of its kind and the first major esports tournament hosted by ESPN's recently developed esports division. Over three days of match play, collegiate champions were crowned in five titles: Overwatch, Hearthstone, Star Craft II, Heroes of the Storm, and Street Fighter V.

The tournament was not without its complications, however, as network and/or power disruptions caused more than one game stoppage — including an hour long delay in the middle of the Heroes of the Storm championship match between Rutgers and Cal Poly Pomona. Issues like these are usually due to venues failing to provide sufficient power or bandwidth to meet the requirements of a large scale competition.

The hiccups were particularly unfortunate due to the size and capacity of a venue like George R. Brown.

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Joshua Chan of University of California - Berkeley competing in StarCraft II.
Photo by Gabriel Christus / ESPN Images
While live attendance was meager, even during marquee matches like the much anticipated Overwatch final, the real action was happening online. The ESPN Esports Twitch feed, where matches and commentary were streamed live throughout the event, racked up just under 2 million total streams, with more than 20,000 active viewers tuning into some of the final matches.

The CEC competing schools were as follow:

Overwatch Quarterfinals:
- Maryville University
- Carelton University
- Harrisburg University (champions)
- New Jersey Institute of Technology
- Grand Canyon University
- Orange Coast College
- Rutgers University
- University of Utah

Hearthstone Semifinals:
- Georgia Tech (champions)
- Rochester Institute of Technology
- University of Minnesota
- University of Oregon

Star Craft II Semi Finals:
- University of Waterloo
- University of Chicago
- UC Berkley (champions)
- UC San Diego

Heroes of the Storm Finals:
- Rutgers University (champions)
- Cal Poly Pomona

Street Fighter V Finals:
- New Jersey Institute of Technology (champions)
- Sheridan University

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Harrisburg University lifts the trophy after winning the Overwatch championship.
Photo by Gabriel Christus / ESPN Images
"We started developing this concept around a year ago," says Clint Overby, Vice President of ESPN Events. "Having had a partnership here in the city of Houston for a number of years, and the way Comicpalooza is structured, it made it an obvious marriage."

Overby goes on to describe both the venue and Comicpalooza itself as a perfect alignment of opportunity, capacity and existing relationships. ESPN Events already partners with both the Texans and the city on their NCAA properties hosted in NRG each year. Those relationships, as well as Houston's ease of access and capacity for major events made the city an easy choice for CEC.

As for why these specific titles were featured in the tournament as opposed to other equally (or more) popular esports titles like League of Legends or Fortnite, the decision came down to ESPN's partnerships with game developers. All five titles featured this weekend are owned by either Blizzard Entertainment or Capcom.

"They're the ones we went to," say Overby, "Their existing collegiate structure of games they've already got in place, framed for us where we went with the individual schools."

Because collegiate esports lack a governing body, something like the NCAA for traditional sports, companies like ESPN must partner with game developers in order to reach schools and organize events. In fact, the lack of institutional support for these teams was on full display as a scrappy Rutgers team took home the trophy for Star Craft II despite not being an officially sanctioned club at their own university.

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Trevor Moore of University of Chicago competing in StarCraft II.
Photo by Gabriel Christus / ESPN Images
In the end, the weekend appears to have been a success for both collegiate esports and ESPN. With an extremely successful first broadcast, the company staked its unquestioned leadership in a promising industry still in its infancy.

Whether the tournament was a success for Comicpalooza is yet to be seen. Lackluster attendance at the esports events and technical issues were difficult realities to ignore. Despite the appeal of the venue and the convention's growing commitment to showcase gaming, ESPN may think twice when planning future CEC events.
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Houston Press contributor Carlos Brandon is a freelance writer, blogger, and self proclaimed Houston hip hop historian. He contributes to various publications and can usually be found haggling with food truck cooks or talking politics on the METRO Rail.
Contact: Carlos Brandon