Joe Jacko has been entrenched in the gaming space over the course of his life. What started out as playing Pokémon in his childhood transitioned into playing Call of Duty with friends before reaching a competitive level as one of the top players in the world in League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle arena game.

Along the way, he noticed there was something absent from the esports industry. Jacko, a 2019 communication studies alumnus, used his education in Virginia Tech’s School of Communication to explore this missing piece.

“There was a lack of diversity and equity in the space, and there wasn’t a whole lot being done to combat this absence,” Jacko said. “I ended up taking an academic dive into the issues surrounding the space and tried to tailor my education as I was going through Virginia Tech to pursue a better and more inclusive environment within gaming. During my communication studies program I heavily focused on gender and communication in esports. I felt like there was a way into this field if I could help understand and solve those issues at the time.”

Jacko largely credits the Communication and Gender class he took with Beth Waggenspack, a now retired professor who was recently conferred the title of associate professor emerita, as a key stepping stone into his research on these issues. He examined the work of Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown, specifically applying her research on gender communication and language into the esports realm.

“Joe’s online gaming expertise focused him on the types of and impact of gendered communication in online environments, particularly gendered role expectations,” Waggenspack said. “His final paper focused on a literature review of research on the competitive nature of online gaming tournaments and its influence on gendered communication patterns among participants. Joe was able to use that research as he pursued job interviews. When a student can see a direct application between theory and research and desired career goals, it’s the best of all worlds.”

It all sparked a deep desire in Jacko to flip the gaming world upside down and create an important change. He enjoyed his time as a competitive player at Virginia Tech, where he and others won more than $20,000 in esports scholarships. Through targeted recruiting efforts, Jacko also helped the university’s League of Legends team improve from being composed of players in the top 10 percent of the game when he arrived to players in the top 0.1 percent of the game when he graduated.

Still, he knew the best way to implement this change would be as an esports coach instead of as a player. Upon graduation, Jacko began searching for these jobs. His research on gender and equity and overall skill as a player combined with the other integral communication functions he learned over his time as a student made him an attractive candidate. Eventually, he chose to become the League of Legends head coach at the University of Southern California.

“Virginia Tech helped me during all of those interview processes,” Jacko said. “I was able to combine everything I’d learned about résumé building, interviewing, elevator pitches, and public speaking into my own personal brand.”

Since he’s been the head coach at USC, much of his instruction is largely focused around in-game strategy and breakdowns of the games after the fact, but a significant amount of attention is devoted to communication between the players.

Joe Jacko
Joe Jacko’s research during his time as a communication studies major at Virginia Tech has allowed him to create a more inclusive environment in the esports industry. Photo courtesy of Joe Jacko.

Chatter between the players can often deviate away from the game. This is where Jacko reins them in to make sure the players are instead focusing on communicating their actions so their teammates can best follow suit.

“I try to look especially at how our communication jells together,” Jacko said. “How can we get better at communicating? That’s a major focus for me and an area in which I think I can excel or help these players.”

“Joe’s coaching has made me not only a better player, but a better person as well, through his dedication and commitment to our players,” said Daimyan Angulo, USC League of Legends team captain. “Whether it be about the game or life in general, Joe has time and time again shown us how much he cares for our well-being and our improvement. His drive to see us improve as people has created this support system among the team that motivates me, while also serving as an example on how to help others outside of games.”

It’s even here where Jacko brings some of his findings from Virginia Tech into the fold. When he examined Tannen’s research, Jacko was captivated by the typical one-upping, competitive language of males compared to the more cooperative language of females. In his coaching, he sees the amalgamation of these two communication styles as a pivotal piece for success in his team.

“If we’re able to meld those two styles — cooperative and competitive — together, then all of a sudden these students are not just teaching each other how to be better at the game because they want to be better, but they’re also helping bring up the players who might be a little further behind,” Jacko said.

“If we’re able to bring up the lowest skilled players at the same time we’re helping the extremely competitive players become more competitive, we can build a more competitive and cooperative space that I think allows for the most gender diversity and inclusivity and the most competitive atmosphere we can have.”

It’s all been working so far. This year, Jacko had his first starting female-identifying player on the varsity team. It’s noted progress in the short time he’s been the head coach.

Jacko gets to further this cause in another role as the part-time head coach for the esports team at the Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, California. While the players at USC are extremely skilled before joining the team, many of the Westridge students had never played esports at a competitive level before. It creates a different coaching environment, but one that Jacko cherishes.

“The first time I walked in as the coach, they started taking notes,” Jacko said. “That’s something that was new to me. Usually I take notes and then I give them to the players afterward so they can remember and work on the things we talked about, but this was much more of an academic experience. They share their notes among themselves when they’re playing to say, ‘Hey, you missed practice; here are all the notes I took.’ It’s a super exciting thing to be involved in when there’s that much passion.” 

It’s here where Jacko teaches the basic concepts and building blocks for Rocket League, a vehicular soccer video game. He gets help from the administration and in the esports community to produce an esports show or livecast their games on Twitch, a video game livestreaming service. This creates recognition and confidence for the girls who are diving head first into the esports space. It’s all allowing Jacko to fulfill his passion of creating a more inclusive and welcoming atmosphere in esports. 

The COVID-19 pandemic helped fuel esports. The long months in quarantine sparked an exponential growth in gaming and Twitch. With these new players across all different backgrounds, Jacko’s greatest hope is that they can innovate, much like he did, to lead esports to an even brighter future.

“Seeing all the new people brought into this space is exciting and warming,” Jacko said. “My greatest hope would be to see the students take their interest in games and tie it with academics. Seeing more people involved in this space with greater, overarching ideas for how they can solve problems or invent solutions is the most important thing.”

Written by Cory Van Dyke