Player One: Zack Saffron provides leadership, comic relief to 'League' team
LED keyboards and monitors light up Central Michigan University’s brand-new eSports Center. The sounds of keys tapping, mice clicking and voices overlapping stream out of the room, creating an echo in the eerily silent Student Activity Center.
In a moment of excitement over a won objective during practice, Waterford junior Zack Saffron sits forward in his chair and shouts praise to his teammates for a job well done, adding excitement to an already positive environment.
This is far different than two years ago when esports athletes had to huddle around a laptop in Pearce Hall to watch film from a prior competition.
At the time, the esports program had a part-time adviser and Pearce Hall lacked the necessary equipment – high-performance mice, monitors and a strong internet connection.
Two years later, the esports program has all of this and more in its new center, which had a construction cost of $150,000.
Coming to CMU as a freshman to study computer science, Saffron joined what was originally League of Legends Club, where people got to know each other and play the game for fun. The club then merged with other popular gaming communities on campus for members to play casual games together and allow club teams to live under one roof.
Before the Office of Student Activities and Involvement started working with the club to give esports its own spotlight in Fall 2019, Saffron served as the competitive manager for League of Legends. He and a few others held tryouts and helped put together the rosters for the club teams, working to maintain a strong relationship with both teams and building leadership skills, as well.
"Being able to know the game on a different level can change a lot," Saffron said. "As a leader, you can understand and help others get to the same level of thinking as you, and that's how a team can start to grow."
Now, both old and new faces sit alongside Saffron at the rows of computers. The new center — which opened earlier this year — hosts League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate matches at the varsity level.
Saffron said he has been playing the game since his sophomore year of high school, having been introduced to it by his brother. He’s played for two to three hours almost daily since, constantly working to improve his game mechanics.
Starting at one of the lowest competitive rankings, he takes pride in his ongoing journey, currently sitting at one of the higher ranks in the game.
"I started becoming more passionate about League when I came to school here, and being able to be at the very beginning of it to see how much has changed has been really cool for me," Saffron said. "Now, I always think to myself, 'I am at the start of (the transition of the club), I am where people in the future are going to be at', just because people started making noise and said, 'Hey, this is getting big and we need to do something about it before it's too late.'"
Like most competitive video games, League of Legends relies heavily on team communication. Like on any team, having strong chemistry is crucial.
During matches, players will use "call outs," to let teammates know what is happening on the map – where opponents are and where teammates should position themselves – to execute their game plan.
“Before I played on a team, there were so many things I didn’t understand that I do now,” Saffron said. “When you're playing with people (on a team) you can get a better sense of what is going on around the rest of the map by hearing their voices."
Within each of the four games, there is a Maroon team and a Gold team. The Gold team is equivalent to the "first string" and Maroon is equivalent to the "second string."
Macomb senior Alek Smith, who is the captain for the League of Legends Gold team, plays directly alongside Saffron and their three other teammates.
“I got involved my freshman year by noticing a flyer talking about the League of Legends club,” Smith said. “I met Zack my second year at Central and in the club. We've been friends since meeting, and our synergy is pretty good in game because we've played a lot together before, and now we both play bot lane (two roles that work very closely together) as a whole."
Smith added that all the players on their team have played together in previous years and their team environment is positive overall.
“We all have a good relationship with each other, so it’s easy to communicate with each other and understand what we need to work on,” Smith said.
When Saffron first began competing in League of Legends, he had confidence in his skills but the nerves to compete well were always present.
Now, he prepares for matches just as a basketball player would prepare for a game, a solid warmup and music.
"I was more nervous than I am now, but I would listen to my favorite music to try and focus up and calm down in preparation for a match,” Saffron said. “I’ll either play a quick practice game or go into the training area and practice combos on test dummies to get warmed up.”
Saffron said that he usually feels confident in his team going into matches, and once the game starts, he tries to keep a level tempo.
If the team is winning, he helps his teammates stay focused so they don’t lose the lead. When they are losing, he helps keep spirits high and makes sure they keep communicating throughout to keep the team in the match.
“There’s a lot of difference in talk, like when you’re winning, you think, ‘what now, what can we take from them?’ but when you’re losing, you have to think ‘what can we do to come back in this game?’ and try to work on it as you go,” Saffron said. “It’s hard to keep your emotions in check sometimes, but the most important thing is to bounce back from it and learn how you can do better for next time."
Head coach and program adviser Katherine Hanchon said Saffron's leadership comes in many ways. He is one of the more vocal leaders, offering praise to his teammates – he's also the team jokester.
“Zack is like the comic relief,” Hanchon said. “He brings such a light to the team. Watching how he has developed as a person over the past few months into a more confident player and leader has been an incredible experience, and I’m excited to see what else he can do.”
CMU's League of Legends team plays in the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), similar to the NCAA for other varsity sports. Meanwhile, the other three games compete in the Esports Collegiate Conference (ESC), which is comprised of the 12 schools that make up the Mid-American Conference.
Whether in NACE or the ESC, students like Saffron and Smith have the opportunity to compete in the games they love against peers from other institutions. Hanchon said she appreciates the opportunity to see her students compete and do what they love.
“It’s been a dream come true to watch all of these students grow and have an opportunity to compete for their school,” Hanchon said. “It’s really heartwarming to watch this community pop up and turn into something incredible.”