LOS ANGELES -- UC Irvine won the first showdown between varsity programs at the College League of Legends Championship with a 3-0 victory against Columbia College on Sunday in Los Angeles.
The No. 2 Anteaters tore through the No. 5 Cougars in the sweep to earn UCI's first College League of Legends title. After a year of so-close-but-so-far moments for the program, including a runner-up finish at the Fiesta Bowl Collegiate Overwatch National Championship and being eliminated in the quarterfinals of Heroes of the Dorm, the Anteaters earned an esports title.
"It's so rewarding to see all that work pay off," UCI esports program director Mark Deppe said. "I think it's a great sign for collegiate esports to see scholarship teams continue to be on the top stage and continue to demonstrate that smart investment pays dividends."
Following the elimination of No. 1 Maryville University by No. 8 Illinois on Thursday, the bracket seemed destined to boil down to a matchup between the Anteaters and the Cougars.
Columbia College had mid laner Julien "Julien" Gelinas, the top player on the North American League of Legends ladder in April, along with Scouting Grounds hopeful Ian "MistyStumpey" Alexander in the top lane and Robert Morris University transfer Evan "EvanRL" Lawson at AD carry.
UCI, meanwhile, boasted three ex-pro players, including former Team Liquid substitute Youngbin "Youngbin" Jung, Team Dignitas sub James "Lattman" Lattman and Lyubomir "BloodWater" Spasov, who played for Counter Logic Gaming in 2013 and went to the League of Legends World Championship with Vulcun in 2011.
But the difference between the two stacked teams, Deppe said, wasn't entirely skill-based.
"Playing against Columbia, we knew they had some superstar players, but something we've learned is that being good at this game is way more than solo queue ranking; it's about that team synergy, communication and willingness to learn," Deppe said. "Our team came together, and they were able to overcome some superstars today."
UCI banned away Julien's best picks in the mid lane in all three games and kept MistyStumpey in the top lane and out of teamfights with wave clear and consistent pressure. With two of the Cougars' biggest threats hindered, Youngbin was able to better exploit the skill gap between himself and Columbia College jungler Zachary "BukZacH" Lapham. He helped pace UCI with a 12.0 kills/deaths/assists (KDA) ratio in Game 3 that capped off a 5.9 KDA for the entire tournament, which was the best among junglers at the event.
For Youngbin, who left the Anteaters in the middle of the tournament last year when Liquid needed him to start, the difference-making performance was especially sweet. He'd been on the League Championship Series stage before. But being up there with a trophy in-hand and confetti pouring down, he said, was a defining moment in the 23-year-old's career.
"This is the reason why I play competitively," Youngbin said. "It felt great. This is something that I worked for for an entire year. I couldn't imagine myself being second place and being satisfied."
Despite having a lineup with former pros, the road to this moment was tough for the Anteaters, top laner Evan "Captain Nuke" Phu said. The team struggled early on because of conflicts between players' personalities and playstyles, and UCI brought in a sports psychologist to help the team work through its problems.
"We used to have really, really rough bumps," Captain Nuke said. "We're the best players on paper, but we just needed it to click. It finally clicked here."
Going into the championship week, all the talk was about Maryville's potential repeat title or Columbia College upending its longtime rival. Somehow, the No. 2 seed became an afterthought despite its seemingly unassailable macro play, its veteran leadership and the home town crowd on-hand.
All three of those forgotten factors came to the forefront Sunday.
"I don't think we ever thought of ourselves as underdogs," Deppe said. "We had a lot of respect for Maryville and Columbia. I think we thought that one of the three of us would be taking home the trophy today, but our team is incredibly confident. They worked really hard earned that right to be confident."