Jason Dong will be the first to tell you that he's “the new captain” of the UBC eSports' League of Legends team. He follows in the footsteps of Wesley Lee (DaiJurJur in-game) — the “captain captain.”
“I don't see myself as as much of a leader [as Lee],” said Dong, who goes by ProofOfPayment in-game. “I think it might be better if someone else could do it.”
Like it or not, Dong is in charge of the most successful university-level eSports team in North America.
His squad took the top spot back-to-back in the North American Collegiate Championships (NACC) in 2015 and 2016, coming out of nowhere to emerge as the most lethal team on the continent.
Before the storm
UBC didn’t even have a team when Dong applied. He describes his household as “pretty Asian” — education is very important, so he chose the school for the reason so many others do: it’s the best.
In Dong’s family, “it goes: school first, and then pretty much everything else.”
If you thought this story would be a classic showdown between academic parents and a kid who wants to do things his own way, you'd be wrong. Dong says his parents are proud of his eSports career, as long his studies aren't impacted.
“Everyone has their own hobbies. Mine just happens to be video games. It's not like I'm doing hard drugs or something,” he said.
His parents even make time to watch his big games.
“They talk to me every time I come back from my flights, like, ‘Oh, wow, congratulations! I don't know what you did, but I saw the numbers and everything and you guys won!’” he imitates his mother’s gesticulations like only a child of excitable parents can.
A load off his parents’ minds might be the fact that Dong isn’t planning to go pro. For now, he’s focused on finishing school. He might go for a master’s.
“Depends if I get in any work experience. If I do, then I might branch off to something else. But I'm not sure yet.”
I'm an English major. We bonded over the impending doom that will be trying to find a real job.
As a kid, Dong played “normal sports” — soccer for almost 10 years, basketball for five and volleyball for a couple. He also played piano for a decade.
“I guess video games kind of took over those,” he said.
Elementary-aged Dong would head outside with his friends to kick a ball around, but he found the transition to high school facilitated long Skype-and-video-game sessions. Either way, he never wanted more for a social life.
“You really are hanging out with your friends almost all the time online.”
The road to the top
As soon as Dong got to UBC, he tried out for the eSports team. There weren’t a lot of other recruits. Dong says he played a couple games with the team and was casually offered a spot. Simple.
“I guess it's because we didn't have as much success back then. eSports wasn't nearly as big and the collegiate scene wasn't developed at all, so people didn't know about the tournaments,” he said.
“When I was joining, it was kind of like, we don't know what we're playing for, but we just want to make a team and be the best."
Right off the bat, they almost were. The team’s first competition on the national stage came the year before their championship win. They ended up in fourth place. This is not a bad finish for a ragtag group of Canadians competing against dozens of seasoned vets, but Dong still felt the sting.
“It was disappointing for us,” he said. “You always strive to be number one, and not reaching your goal when you're pretty sure that you could've is disappointing.”
The team regrouped back in Vancouver and added some new talent for the upcoming year —people who were “really motivated to succeed.”
Immediately, that motivation turned into results. The team won the championship the following year.
“It was pretty exciting. We practiced for half a year for that exact day, so to be able to go up, play your hearts out and win — it’s incredible,” he said.
Winning brings expectations and they're sky-high this season. Everyone wants the three-peat.
But the UBC team won their championships with the exact same squad. This year, the team has suffered a few losses — captain Wesley Lee is focusing more on his studies, attack damage carry Sean Wang changed universities, mid-laner Bob Qin dropped out to go pro.
Dong isn’t worried.
“Our team’s actually pretty good this year,” he smirked. It was a rare peek at the quiet bravado that comes with winning two continent-wide championships in two years. “We can definitely win.”
With a 5-0 record so far this year, the team looks well on its way.
But Dong isn’t getting cocky. Anything can happen in eSports and he's keenly aware that other schools have upped their game since last year.
He names the University of California, Irvine; Maryville University and Robert Morris University as the three to watch. All three provide scholarships for eSports — an attractive prospect for high-level players.
“New age. Gaming scholarships,” said Dong. He smiled and stared off into the distance.
Not Thunderbirds — yet
UBC, on the other hand, has historically gone out of its way to distance itself from the eSports Association. The university banned the team from using the Thunderbird name — a decision that makes less and less sense as the team continues to dominate.
“Yeah, they've been a little bit hostile towards us,” said Dong.
The team finds support elsewhere. Riot Games — the company that makes League of Legends — put up billboards around Vancouver as a way to promote the champs.
The team's gaming lounge was funded by Intel, ASUS, Corsair, NCIX and Wangyu Cyber Cafe. The AMS provided a permanent space for it in the Nest.
Dong said that the club has spoken with UBC President Santa Ono, who, according to Dong, was “all for” promoting the club. So far, that’s translated to one tweet.
Len Catling, the media relations director for UBC Athletics, is working to change the relationship between UBC and the eSports Association. He's spoken with club president Victor Ho about increasing the competitive team's exposure.
Catling has provided them media relations support since he began in January, 2016. He points to a story on CTV National News — his former workplace — as one that he helped coordinate and pitch.
“We recognize as an Athletics department how successful they are, and how many fans they have and how popular eSports is,” said Catling. “There’s all kinds of things we could do to collaborate with them.”
So in a perfect world, what would Dong like to see from UBC? The question seemed to shake him.
“You just threw a hard one at me.”
He shifted in his chair and took some time to think. For the captain of UBC’s most successful sports team in recent years, his answer was surprisingly modest — Dong just wants some recognition.
“It just seems like UBC doesn’t really care — they have their posters where they show their basketball players, and ... we’re national champions and people don’t even know who we are,” he said.
Although talks with the club are in early stages, Catling has some ideas about how to change that.
UBC Athletics has a lot of facilities, for instance — the team could potentially take advantage of a larger viewing space. At Homecoming, a giant screen displayed the score — Catling wants to explore bringing that inside, and potentially screening big games on it.
The T-Bird logo — or “some kind of UBC branding” — is also up for discussion.
“As our relationship grows and we're able to work on things that are mutually beneficial, I think they will continue to be recognized by the greater university community,” said Catling.
“I'm here to support them any way I can.”
Let’s get meta
The media is still getting used to treating eSports like any other sport. ESPN made headlines when they committed to covering it seriously, but for the most part, it’s still largely relegated to streaming services like Twitch (although some see that as a good thing).
While they help raise the scene’s profile, documentaries like VICE’s journey into the rockstar world of high-level South Korean eSports stars don’t exactly help the image of college-level athletes across the Pacific.
But Dong says the stigma isn’t as bad as it used to be.
“Before, eSports was like, ‘These guys are rejects, what are they doing? They’re in university, they should be studying.’ But … we all have our own lives outside of studies. This is a hobby for us. It's not really like we sit at home and play video games 20 hours a day. We're real people too,” he said.
And as more and more people tune in to watch people play video games professionally, mainstream acceptance of eSports doesn’t look to be far off — a fact reflected in the amount of money that teams like Dong’s play for.
“The prize pool has gone up four-fold. Every year, Riot Games is giving out like $400,000 in USD for scholarships. It’s big money. First place [is] $30,000 USD — for students like us, that covers a lot,” he said.
It should be noted: that’s 30 grand each (in scholarship money, but 30 grand is 30 grand). And with big money comes viewership.
“When you hear that [students] are playing for like $100, it's kind of like... ‘eh.’” He gave a cartoonish shrug.
“When you hear that they're playing for $180,000, everyone’s like, ‘Really? These university students? Okay, I guess I'll take a look.’”
The money’s this good at this point and it only gets better. Top-level players can earn millions.
“I think the time for me has passed. I've been playing for a little bit too much time,” he said.
Dong is 22 — but a lot of players have to make a decision around this point in their life about what they can realistically pursue. For Dong, that doesn't include a professional eSports career.
But as captain of the most formidable eSports squad in North America — and having financed his entire degree by doing what he loves — he’s earned the right to enjoy the ride.