In the News

November 14, 2016

'The League' of Her Own

By Katherine Li Smith

Kathy Chiang ’16, Computer Game Science grad and UCI eSports arena coordinator, discusses her experience as a female gamer and provides a tour of the new arena.

Jump to "Inside the New eSports Arena" below >

In some ways, Kathy Chiang '16 is exactly the type of person you’d expect to run a state-of-the-art computer game arena. She studied computer game science at UC Irvine; was president of TAG (The Association of Gamers); worked as a bright-eyed intern at Riot Games; gamed as a League of Legends Officer; and was the mastermind behind Midnight Finals, the largest League of Legends World Championship party of the day held at the OC Fair and Event Center.

Chiang is, quite simply, perfect for the job.

However, she’s also completely not what you’d expect – at least if you go by the numbers – being a woman.

Chiang is one of those outliers in gaming and computer science industry statistics. According to the International Game Developers Association, there are serious disparities that persist throughout the game industry for women. Significant differences in pay – 10 percent of men earn $150,000 or more compared with only 3 percent of women – and senior management positions – 19 percent of women compared to 23 percent of men – can discourage many girls from pursing jobs in computer game development.

This trickles down to the college level, where only 17.9 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees are earned by females, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project, another agency that tracks such statistics.

The Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) reports that 29 percent of its undergraduate students for the 2015-16 academic year were female, growing almost 200 percent over the last five years. For the Computer Game Science (CGS) program that number is currently about 23 percent for females, which is up from 16 percent since Chiang began the CGS program in 2011.

Although Chiang was visibly one of only a handful of women in the major, she never let it bother her... too much.

“There was one moment, during freshman year, where I was the only girl in a class of about 80 people,” says Chiang. “It can be really daunting, but it never affected my work.”

That class was CGS-specific, Chiang remembers, although broader computer science courses tend to have more women, as well as upper-division CGS classes.

“There are always a couple of people who are a little weird about it,” says Chiang. “They’d ask me why I was in this major or not want me in their group.”

It was often in small groups, since there were many classes where she had to design games, where these little reminders of her uniqueness shined through. “In each group there would be a producer, designer, programmer and artist,” says Chiang. “Everyone always assumed I was the artist and no one ever offered the programming job to me.”

Not a big deal, according to Chiang, since she enjoys art, too. Although she didn’t mind taking this role, Chiang encourages girls to always speak up and ask for the tasks they're better at, even if it’s programming. If you don’t get it, then make the best of your situation and learn something new, she says.

Being female in a male-dominated field presents unique challenges, but in addition, Chiang also dealt with the characteristic ups and downs of beta-testing a new major.

“My sophomore year, the requirements for the major changed, so I was suddenly scrambling to figure out which classes I needed to fulfill the requirements,” says Chiang.

But that wasn’t the main criticism students had about the major in those early days. Less understandable was the repetitive nature of the coursework. “It was make a game in a week or make a game in a quarter, or make a game over two quarters, so the last few years of my college career were very repetitive,” says Chiang.

At first, she couldn’t understand why she was essentially taking the same class over and over again. Although in hindsight, Chiang appreciates the importance of this type of curriculum, albeit tedious at times, to strengthen students’ practical skills. “It might have felt very repetitive, but at the same time that is actually the best way to practice and get better, you just keep making games. It was interesting to see the major develop as I was a part of it,” she says.

If this news worries would-be CGS students of either gender, don’t let it turn you off. The CGS faculty and department were constantly taking feedback from students about the course offerings, professors and speakers.

“I think it’s honestly improving and is one of the best video game majors in the country,” says Chiang. “Some people are really nervous to take the CGS major because they think it’s more narrow than computer science, but something I’ve discovered since graduating is that your major doesn’t matter when you apply to jobs. ... It’s the practical experience. For example, to get the arena coordinator position, it wasn’t my game development skills, it was my experience running clubs and events.”

Kathy’s advice to students considering computer game science: Pursue what you’re passionate about.

She encourages students to “do projects outside of class, whether they be programming, art or business related. Reach out; be active; be thirsty for knowledge. Doing all the coursework will only get you so far. What you do outside your major is what will get you ahead.” Inside the New eSports Arena

Six days after the fanfare of UC Irvine’s groundbreaking new eSports Arena kickoff, the cheering crowds have dissipated, the press is gone, and now... it’s quiet.

“This is the calm moment, really,” explains Kathy Chiang, UCI eSports Arena coordinator. She tells me “managing the business is a lot easier than managing that crazy, hectic event.”

During the grand opening on Sept. 23, 2016 the 3,500-square-foot space was flooded with some 1,500 students, gamers, journalists, faculty and staff eager to get a first look at the first collegiate esports arena in the country.

Outside, a harsh California sun blares down on students walking to class. Inside, it’s a cool oasis. Sleek leather chairs emblazoned in anteater pride, high-tech computers and smiling faces welcome you inside. Chiang gives me a personal tour of UC Irvine’s newest source of pride.

Immediately to your left is a front desk where student staff members take account information and replenish funds. The arena employs 25 students Monday through Saturday, noon to midnight. All of the students have been trained in customer service and IT.

“They’ve all been really amazing and really stepped up their game after our very hectic grand opening,” she boasts.

Next to the front desk is a small, round conference table for meetings. Chiang points to a man in a blue shirt. It turns out to be Mark Deppe, acting director of UCI eSports.

Chiang and Deppe make up the only two full-time employees of UCI eSports. Although, they’ve also got a very involved student intern, Jesse Wang, to help further build UC Irvine’s eSports program.

The main focal point of the room is, quite naturally, the rows of 80 computers that fill up the majority of the space. These PCs are the best of the best in the gaming world.

“I think most people are really excited by the GTX 1080’s that we have,” says Chiang.

The GeForce GTX 1080 is NVIDIA’s new flagship advanced gaming graphics card. If you want one for your home, you’d have to say goodbye to $699 (and that’s just for the card, not including the computer).

Further back in the room is a separate row of PCs facing out, the stage area, where UCI has most of its collegiate teams practice or play during tournaments. Currently, a single poster adorns the plain, white wall behind it, but Chiang and Deppe plan on installing a large video wall. The vision is to stream the live game play onto big screen televisions for spectators to watch and cheer their esports athletes on.

There’s also a space for console gamers, lest they should feel left out, to play or hold events. Although, currently it’s BYOC (bring your own console) until the arena has the budget to purchase in-house equipment.

The last stop on the tour is the arena’s very own “shoutcasting” booth. If you’re wondering what that is, just compare esports to most traditional athletics. A shoutcaster is the esports gaming equivalent of your typical sportscaster. The custom broadcasting booth, like everything else in the arena, was sponsored by a private company. In this case, it was Irvine-based Oomba. The gaming computers are courtesy of iBUYPOWER, the arena’s chief sponsor.

Some 20 minutes after the doors opened at noon, it’s easy to see how popular the arena is with students. It’s packed. Gamers have already made this space their home.

For more photos of the eSports Arena, visit the Google Photos album.

— Katherine Li Smith

'The League' of Her Own

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