Nicknamed the “Aloha Project,” the partnership was the Activision-Blizzard esports league’s answer to a complex pandemic-related problem: If we can’t fly every team to a single location because of travel restrictions, how can they compete across continents with minimal lag?
It also allowed the school to monetize its access to the fastest internet connection that exists between Asia and North America. This is the first time that the university has made an agreement of this sort with a for-profit group, according to spokesman Brent Suyama.
Use of the university’s facilities—and the all-important internet connection—will cost $20,000 per visit, for a total of $80,000 this year, according to a hosting agreement obtained via open records requests. Beyond the cash payments, the contract also calls for promotion of the university through the Overwatch League’s broadcast and digital channels, and short-term internship opportunities for Hawaii students.
Like many schools around the country, the University of Hawaii at Manoa is working to incorporate esports into its academic offerings. The school just finished a two-year pilot program that will grow this year into an official academic track with courses and a new gaming arena under construction.
“This is a remarkable opportunity for our students,” Suyama said in an email. “They are getting hands-on experience with these professionals in a field that has been growing in interest…[The school] hopes that this initial partnership will open further opportunities for our students and bring more events to our state.”
You complete us, @uhmanoa.
— Overwatch League (@overwatchleague) June 13, 2021
The hosting agreement details the financial specifics of one of the more creative pandemic-related innovations in sports over the past 18 months. Despite the fact that esports competitions happen over the internet, professional leagues typically play with teams in the same location to minimize the lag. That plan was impossible for this Overwatch League season—it has 20 teams across six countries—so leadership found a creative way to minimize the internet latency.
Four times this year, Overwatch League will fly the top teams in its West division to Hawaii, where they will compete for tournament titles against teams in Asia. Not only is Hawaii closer to Asia, but partnering with the university gave Overwatch League access to a $1 billion fiber-optic cable that runs under the Pacific Ocean from California to Oahu and then on to Japan.
The university pays for access to that cable, called the Japan-U.S. Submarine Cable System, at a rate of $1,500 per month (most of the university’s traffic actually travels the shorter distance from Oahu to mainland U.S., not to Japan). Both the amount of bandwidth available—the school’s access can be upped to as much as 10 GB/second in certain periods—and the timing of the Overwatch League’s outreach helped facilitate the partnership.
“One of the reasons this works out during this time is because of the lower activity during the pandemic on campus,” Suyama said.
The hosting agreement grants Overwatch League use of some university facilities, including space in its IT center and a computer lab/esports arena, for four different six-day stretches this summer. Beyond the $80,000 rental cost, there’s additional costs for insurance and any additional costs for set-up and cleaning.
— Overwatch League (@overwatchleague) June 11, 2021
There are also other benefits for the school. Overwatch has committed to doing four free educational seminars on campus featuring league officials and team executives, plus at least 12 short-term internship opportunities for Hawaii students while the league is on campus. There’s also a commitment to promote the university in league broadcasts and digital media, including ‘thank you’ social posts and memes incorporating the teams’ presence in Hawaii.
Overwatch League finished its June Joust tournament in Hawaii earlier this month. It will return to the university in the middle of July for its Summer Showdown, then again at the end of August for its Countdown Cup. Plans for its playoffs and Grand Finals are still undecided.