In middle school, Abiola Monk and Alex Petrusan started playing the video game “League of Legends” with each other.
On Saturday, about seven years after the two Ellicott City natives started playing the popular online game, Monk and Petrusan won a League of Legends conference championship as members of Howard Community College’s esports program.
“It was really cool to win the championship,” Monk said. “HCC having esports did play a part in me coming here. Me and Alex went to middle school together. That’s when we started playing the game, and now we’re really playing a lot and having fun with it.”
The Dragons defeated Newberry College, a small private school in South Carolina, 3-0 to claim the New England Collegiate Conference League of Legends title.
This fall is Howard Community College’s first with an esports program, and the Dragons have teams playing “League of Legends,” “Rocket League” and “Overwatch” — all of which are popular competitive esports.
“The amount of improvement from our players from day one to that match was phenomenal,” said Mark Winkel, Howard CC’s esports coordinator. “Newberry was a heavy favorite. Nobody was really expecting us to win, but our guys worked so hard and did a great job studying film.”
Newberry was the No. 1 seed with an undefeated conference and regular season record. In fact, the Wolves hadn’t lost a single game within a given match all season, including defeating the Dragons, 2-0, in the regular season.
“I think I speak for everyone when I say none of us were concerned about Newberry being undefeated,” said Monk, a Wilde Lake High graduate. “After we swapped the roster around, the games got much easier to play. We all mesh well together.”
“League of Legends” was created in 2009 and is one of the most popular PC video games of all time. The battle arena game has more than 100 million users and is arguably the biggest esport.
Duy Phuong Nguyen, the Dragons’ League of Legends captain, said the team was able to make several key adjustments after its first loss to Newberry. He also credited teammates Monk, Petrusan, Minh Dang and Daniel Finke for their performances.
“We improved during the season,” said Nguyen, who has been playing the game for eight years. “Our communication improved and everyone worked hard. I was sure we were going to win the whole thing. The first time we played [Newberry] we had some problems that I knew we would fix.”
Esports programs aren’t common in college athletics, but with the popularity of gaming and esports on the rise, some institutions have started to see value in them.
In 2019, the U.S. video game industry generated a record $35.4 billion in revenue, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Several content creators on Twitch, a live-streaming platform, play video games like “Call of Duty,” “Fortnite,” “Valorant” and others and make millions from subscribers, YouTube revenue and advertisers. In Maryland, a few colleges like Hood College, Stevenson University and Mount St. Mary’s have esports programs.
The hope of running an esports program is one that Winkel has had for a few years. Howard CC had decided before the pandemic that it would be starting an esports program, and the college officially announced it in June. Immediately, Winkel said, questionnaire responses from prospective student-athletes started arriving in his email.
The program currently has 28 players, but Winkel expects that number to grow moving into the spring and in the coming years.
The Dragons are competing in the NECC, which supports an esports league of about 20 programs ranging from Division I colleges to community colleges like Howard CC.
In addition to the Dragons’ League of Legends championship, three other Howard Community College teams made the conference semifinals this fall.
The League of Legends team that won the title was the Maroon team. The Dragons also had a League of Legends squad — the Gold team — make the semifinals, where they fell to Newberry. Captain Andrew Wells, Samuel Danchik, Gene Patrick Dones, Phi Nguyen and Chris Schuyler were the starters for the Gold team.
Howard CC’s Overwatch and Rocket League squads made the semifinals as well. The Dragons’ Overwatch team was led by captain Darien Hundley, Paul Delfico, Jocef Dorsey, Paul Gaylon, Chris Ikpefua, Brittney Jackson and Marcelo Rodriguez. Howard CC’s Rocket League team, meanwhile, was led by captain Jeremy Hotchkiss, Logan Ghandi and Akaash Patel.
“Overwatch” is a team-based first-person shooter game, while Rocket League is a unique game in which both teams operate vehicles and battle over a large soccer ball to score goals.
“The program has had a phenomenal first season by any expectation I could’ve had,” Winkel said. “We had four teams make the conference semifinals and one team win a championship. I could’ve never imagined that much success across all the games.”
Winkel hopes the program’s success this fall leads to more recruits in future years.
“Winning a championship and having our Rocket League team beating Alabama, those are things I can use when I go out and recruit,” Winkel said. “Going into the season, we just wanted to have a few teams and set a foundation. Now, we’re having much more success than we planned on having.”