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When COVID-19 forced the Overwatch League online, league officials needed a way to connect Asia and North America for the handful of international tournaments scheduled throughout the season. That’s when Kevin Nguyen and Sky Kauweloa, heads of the esports program at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa got the call: the Overwatch League wanted to host its tournament games on campus.

Originally dubbed ‘Project Aloha’, the partnership let the league host major tournaments like the May Melee from their facility on Mānoa island while reducing latency for participating teams. Not only that, but it gave the visiting players a chance to enjoy the scenic hills, pristine beaches and cool weather after dealing with pandemic conditions for more than a year. But more than anything else, the partnership gave students first-hand experience in the esports world. It’s the first program of its kind.

Nguyen, a student with a bachelor’s degree in  Communications and UH Esports Program Assistant, and Kauweloa, head of the UH Esports Academic Task Force and looking for his PhD in Communications and Information Science, said they were ecstatic when they got the call from Activision Blizzard.

Nguyen and Kauweloa are two key figures in the esports community for the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. As avid fans with a large ocean separating themselves from live events, hosting one was a dream scenario.

“We are not central players in global esports. But with Overwatch’s partnership, we have started to question that”, Nguyen stated, “And that’s not to say that we don’t have issues, we still have ping issues here. But the fact that Overwatch was able to come to Hawaii and say ‘90 milliseconds is good for us’? That flipped the script for us.”

Nguyen said this opportunity has made him reexamine what else is possible in the future and that he couldn’t be happier about how their students would be able to say they helped with production for the Overwatch League.

Kauweloa also mentioned how the university has received emails from students in California, Florida, Texas and New York asking about helping with these Overwatch League tournaments. Overwatch League officials like senior manager Adam Mierzejewski and Florida Mayhem manager Jade “Swingchip” Kim gave hour-long lessons and important advice to the students.

That being said, both Nguyen and Kauweloa didn’t sleep much while getting all the logistics sorted, as the pandemic required multiple safety measures.

“Even though we’re vaccinated, we’re keeping really strict with CDC guidelines and making sure everyone can follow,” Nguyen said. “Follow the rules and regulations of not just the Overwatch League, but our university and the state itself. That’s probably the biggest logistical hurdle.”

Kauweloa also highlighted the cooperation between different departments within the school itself. The partnership required collaboration between the athletics department, the legal department and the ITC department, who were all crucial in making the tournament possible. Kauweloa also confirmed that the university will host all Overwatch League tournament games post-qualifiers.

This feat of connecting a major esports league with a university is promising for the future of the intersection between education and esports, and not just in Hawaii. With event organizers such as the Fiesta Bowl holding an Esports Showdown featuring Rocket League and Warzone tournaments for the first time this year, students have access to bigger opportunities within the industry. As a commissioner of a post-secondary esports league and co-founder of Tespa at Carleton University, James Fitzgerald said these moves make perfect sense.

“The Overwatch League in general is looking at that university demographic; those recent grads, that 16 to 30 demographic,” Fitzgerald explained. “That’s who they want to engage with. It makes sense to get the involvement there from the Activision Blizzard side, but also from the University of Hawaii side. They’re looking at what their audience is, getting people to give back to the community or getting people to join their community.”

Especially within the esports scene, first hand experience means a lot to avid students interested in starting a career within the industry. Fitzgerald stressed that having this event within school grounds and connected to these students’ futures is amazing and should stretch to more campuses in the future.

Still, Nguyen is focused on creating even more opportunities at his university. He said he brought up the concept of bringing more players to Hawaii for the All-Star event, if they could host it. The way he sees it, the players would be rewarded with a trip to beautiful Hawaii and the university can continue to expose more students to esports. In the end, Nguyen said that only helps the community grow stronger.