With a dedicated space in the Academic Commons, a visionary team of student gamers, and a timely boost from an industry giant, esports levels up at Oxy

In the beginning, there was Pong. Half a century ago, Sunnyvale-based Atari Corp. launched the videogame industry with a simple table tennis game—selling more than 8,000 arcade machines by year’s end and igniting the home video craze three years later with exclusive retail partner Sears. While Pong consoles have long been consigned to eBay and landfills, the global video game market is expected to reach more than $220 billion in 2022.

It may surprise some to learn that the revenue from esports—the competitive side of gaming, which historians trace back to a Stanford University symposium in October 1972—will exceed $1.38 billion this year. An estimated 3,600 esports professionals vie for that treasure in the United States alone, and the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) counts 175 colleges and universities among its members, many of which offer scholarships for gamers.

“At this point it’s hard to tell if esports is an underdog anymore—it’s growing exponentially every year,” says Sevrin Weed ’24, a history major from Minneapolis. “If you look at what kids are watching right now, they’re watching sports, sure. But a lot of them are also watching gamers play professionally.” 

As president of Oxy Gaming, Weed is on a mission to secure a robust future for esports at Oxy. Working with the Hameetman Career Center, the offices of Student Life and Institutional Advancement, and an e-board packed with gaming enthusiasts, he spearheaded a movement to secure a dedicated space for players to get their videogame on.

Faster than a game of Sonic Generations, the Oxy Gaming Room came together in a matter of months. And even before Room 364 of the Academic Commons officially opened in late September, “the O” (named after its primary benefactor, gaming industry giant Leo Olebe ’97) had welcomed more than 125 unique visitors.  

But numbers tell only part of the story. “The hidden secret of gaming is that it isn’t about games—it’s about community,” Olebe says. “And that’s the magic. I’m willing to bet that some students will barely spend any time actually playing games when they’re in this room. They’ll be talking and finding their tribe. Gaming brings people together.”

After graduating from high school in 2018, Weed wasn’t sure if he was ready to go to college. Instead, he went to Norway to study esports. “I had really wanted to play League of Legends professionally,” he says—27 million people play the game each day—“and so I wanted to throw everything I could at that to see if I can make it.” He enrolled in a nine-month program at Vefsn Folkehøgskole Toppen, where students practiced eight to nine hours daily, competed individually and as teams, and received professional coaching.

“I had planned to come back home after that,” Weed says, “but the school invited me to work there. So, I spent another year teaching video games, which for most people my age is like living the dream.”

After COVID hit, Weed returned to Minneapolis, enrolled at Oxy (having deferred his acceptance for two years), and started his studies remotely in fall 2020. “I could have gotten a full-ride scholarship to another school off of gaming but I didn’t,” notes Weed, who coached two fledgling League of Legends club teams at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “It’s partially because I believe in what Oxy stands for. Also, Oxy is located in a great spot for people who want to get into the gaming industry.”

In investigating the status of esports at the College, Weed came to know Tzu Kit Chan ’23, a philosophy and comparative studies and literature double major from Kuala Lum­pur, Malaysia. (Dubbed “Occidental’s most involved student” in a recent newspaper article, Chan has started 16 clubs during his time at Oxy—12 of which remain active.)

“Oxy has a history of esports teams but they lacked some sort of structure or administration,” Chan says. In fall 2019, he sent out an email to all students to drum up interest in a live viewing party for the world Dota 2 championships in Choi Auditorium. “I was not expecting many people to show up,” he admits—but among those who did was Deja Kirk ’21, a theater major from Nash­ville. Kirk shared Chan’s interest in starting a gaming club, and the two worked in tandem to build an e-board prior to the start of the pandemic. By the time students returned to in-person study, Kirk had graduated and “Sevrin had joined the e-board,” Chan adds. 

Last fall, Weed and Chan made a presentation on esports to Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Rob Flot. With his endorsement, they looped in Charlie Cardillo, vice president for institutional advancement, and Denise Frost, senior director of principal and major gifts. Their efforts culminated in a meeting with Olebe.

A double major in public policy and politics, Olebe (who served as student body president his senior year) took a job after graduation as a management consultant in New York City and worked for New York Consulting Partners, a McKinsey & Co. subsidiary, doing supply chain and operations consulting. “I thought I was going to be a consultant forever,” says Olebe, who earned an MBA at USC’s Marshall School of Business, “and then somehow I wound up in games.”

Olebe has more than two decades of experience in the games industry working for such firms as Facebook, Disney, Electronic Arts, BioWare, and Warner Bros. He has a tattoo of Darth Vader on his arm, the by­product of his five years of work on a Star Wars game. (Even his kids call him “Vader.”) After spending the last year and a half as managing director of play partnerships with Games @ Google, Olebe recently accepted a new role as global head of gaming at YouTube, where he will oversee gaming-related content and partnerships, including livestreaming.

“I’ve always been a gamer,” says Olebe, who got his entree into the business side of gaming as associate marketing manager with Disney Interactive. “Every job I’ve had for the last 23 years has been in games.”

Within 10 minutes of meeting Olebe, “We just started gushing about video games,” Weed recalls with a smile. “It was funny because you have everybody else in the room who has no idea what we’re talking about but they’re loving it. We’re just going back and forth. The energy was there.”

“When Sevrin and I talked about what this space had to be, it had to be a space where everyone feels welcome,” adds Olebe, who served as ASOC president during his senior year at Oxy. “No matter who you are, where you’re from, or how much you play or don’t play, when you walk through that door, you’re welcome here. The No. 1 thing about the O is that it’s open for everybody.”

Olebe donated $30,000 worth of equipment (“including 10 of the best computers you can get,” Weed says) and reached out to a contact at Logitech to procure mice, keyboards, and headsets for the space. 

“I think it’s amazing,” Olebe says of the O. “The students put their own twist on it, adding posters and stuff. I think we should add even more. We should add LEDs. There are so many cool ideas that you can do with a dedicated space for gaming where that community can build and grow and thrive.”

“My favorite game growing up was Super Smash Bros. Brawl,” says Alex Prichett ’23, a music production major from Baltimore. “As an eighth-grader, I was the best kid in the neighborhood, and I took a lot of pride in that.” But as he got older, he says, video­games stopped being “cool”—so he focused instead on music and ran cross country: “I just got too busy for gaming.”

When he was in 11th grade, his school hosted a Smash tournament—and after a week of training, “I placed fourth out of 40 players,” Prichett recalls. “And I said, ‘OK, we’re back. I like this.’”

His renewed passion for gaming carried over to Oxy, where he and his roommates in Braun all played Smash (and he beat them). In time, Prichett taught them how to improve their own skills—and he met other players on campus who were his equal, if not better. “Smash has been a really social experience for me, especially in college,” he says.

(As an aside, Prichett adds, Occidental has a storied history with Smash, dating back to Super Smash Bros. Melee, the second game in the Nintendo franchise. According to the SmashWiki website, Team OXY is “a crew based in SoCal founded by TheCrimsonBlur . They host tournaments such as the Kings of Cali and Super Smash Sundays series.”)

After months of running small Smash tournaments in their dorm, Prichett and his Smash pals—including Prithvi Chandra ’23, a history and international relations major from Singapore; Benjamin Share ’23, a math major from San Francisco; and Jordan Jung, a computer science and music double major from Oakland—wanted to do something bigger. “Oxy Gaming didn’t exist as an entity yet,” Prichett says. Consequently, they hosted a President’s Day tournament on the first floor of Johnson Student Center in February 2020, attracting an impressive 40 entrants. (Prichett, incidentally, finished second that day, losing to Jay Choi ’22, an English and philosophy double major from Burbank, who retired from Smash during the pandemic.)

After Oxy transitioned to remote learning, Prichett and his Braun buddies kept in touch through their Twitch channel. They ran 13 weekly tournaments during the early months of COVID, with Prichett livestreaming the competitions from his Baltimore home. “Benja, Prithvi, Jordan, and some other friends would hop on the stream and we’d play Smash,” he says. “That was our way of keeping this sense of community alive.”

Last fall, with everyone back on campus, the College’s two gaming groups continued to build on their COVID-fueled momentum. While the Oxy Gaming Guild was meeting with administrators and Olebe and working to secure a home for the gaming room, Oxy Smash resumed hosting monthly in-person tournaments, attracting 42 players to its first event. “We have a consistent group of 20 to 25 players who are really active on our Discord channels—really contributing members of the community,” Prichett says. “But there are so many people at Oxy who have at least some amount of interest in the game. And the challenge is reaching out to them.”

Smash player Lee Chico ’23, a computer science major from Los Angeles, served as an intermediary between the Oxy Gaming Guild and Oxy Smash communities. “Lee reached out to me at the end of one of our tournaments last year with a proposition,” Prichett recalls. “I said, ‘Dude, hit me with it.’ And he said, ‘I think we should do a merger with Oxy Gaming Guild.’ I met with Sevrin about the new space. I loved his ideas and his passion for Oxy Gaming, and I’m really happy to work more on the space with him.”

Thanks to Weed’s and Chan’s efforts, Oxy Gaming (the word Guild has been dropped) was elevated to club sports status, “which is essential for allowing us to fund and support individual players and teams,” says Weed. In meeting with Prichett and his Smash mates following the groups’ merger over the summer, he recalls, “The big thing that I told them is: Go to tournaments, get Oxy’s name out there, and we will find a way to fund you. We’ll pay for the entries and see if we can cover gas. We’ll get you apparel so that you can represent us. Play the game and get the practices going—we can handle the rest.”

“It’s kind of crazy to think that we’ve been going underground basically for three years, not even a club,” Prichett says. “Now we’ve got this space and these resources, and it almost feels like the work we’ve been putting in to create a community now has room to grow. It’s really exciting.”

While Prichett and Weed bring their prowess in Smash and League of Legends, respectively, to the club, “We’re here to support any games that groups want to play,” Weed says. “Imagine if you had football, soccer, hockey, and baseball all in one club. It would be presumptuous of us to decide we want to do just certain videogames because those are the ones that we like.”

There are other perks to the club as well: Last November, a number of Oxy gamers attended the red-carpet premiere of the Netflix series Arcane, adapted from Riot Games’ massively popular League of Legends, at Riot’s headquarters in Los Angeles. “A bunch of gamer celebrities were there—it was incredible,” Weed recalls. “It’s only because we are located in L.A. that we could do that.” 

Over a five-day stretch in July, when he was confined to his room with COVID, Prichett  created a club league with other schools in Southern California—called, fittingly, the SoCal Collegiate Smash Ultimate League. “We had a Discord server set up toward the end of last year where people were sending out feelers wanting to get this done,” Share explains. “Nobody had really taken the initiative to set it up officially, so Alex was that guy.” (“Alex is really well connected with the Smash scene in SoCal,” Chandra adds.) With 12 schools on board, league play was expected to begin this fall.

Looking to Oxy Gaming’s future, “I want to see people hosting Smash tournaments and playing Smash with each other, or Multi­Versus or whatever’s the new game where this community moves,” Prichett says. “As long as people are hosting tournaments and there’s an opportunity for gamers to meet each other in that setting, then I’ll be satisfied with what I did.”

“I think the establishment of the room in the library where we can set up base for Oxy gaming is a big step in the right direction,” adds Chandra, who is participating in the Kahane United Nations Program this fall. “One of the main issues with sustaining a club is having that space that is yours.”

“Going forward, my dream here is to have a thriving and competitively viable collection of teams,” Weed says. “We can also be a hub for gaming in the community so that people who are growing up nearby can experience that and say, ‘I want to go to Oxy.’ ”

Collectively, the e-board hopes that the O will open doors to a more diverse demographic. “Smash itself has historically been a male-dominated space,” Chandra says. “We are working against the game’s own reputation and that of video games in general in trying to improve the atmosphere of the places where we play. That’s really important.”

“For the last five or six months, I’ve been treating Smash more as a skill—like if you were trying to be a professional musician at an instrument,” Prichett says. “I try to get in two to three hours a day of serious practice, which obviously is harder during the school year. I also travel to tournaments, where I have made a lot of friends—that’s been a really positive experience. If I ever stop liking it, I’ll just quit. But it is fun for now.”

As a student, “I didn’t spend enough time in the library at all,” Olebe admits with a laugh. “People have all sorts of weird regrets about their college experiences. For me, it was that I didn’t spend enough time studying. I was in every club. I was involved in everything. If I was in the library, I was probably volunteering for something versus actually studying.”

With the opening of the O, Olebe now has plenty of reasons to come back. “One hundred percent. I’ll be here all the time,” he says. “Now it’s time to go destroy some kids in Apex.”  

Top photo: Oxy Gaming eboard members (standing, l-r) Alex Prichett ’23, Lee Chico ’23, Tzu Kit Chan ’24, and Joshua Pulido ’23; (seated) Idris Smith ’24 and Sevrin Weed ’24.