Joe Jacko started out playing Pokémon in his childhood and transitioned to 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.
Today, the Virginia Tech alumnus is the League of Legends head coach at the University of Southern California.
Along the way, Jacko, a 2019 communication studies alumnus, noticed there was something absent from the esports industry. He 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 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 University, 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.”
Jacko 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 the changes he sought would be as an esports coach instead of as a player. Upon graduation from Virginia Tech, Jacko began searching for these jobs. His research on gender and equity and overall skill as a player made him an attractive candidate that led him to 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 Jacko has been the head coach at USC, much of his instruction has been 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.
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.
When Jacko examined Tannen’s research, he 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 — 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.
It’s all been working so far. This year, Jacko had his first starting female-identifying player on the varsity team. It marks notable progress for the short time he’s been the head coach.
In other words, Jacko is getting the chance to fulfill his passion of creating a more inclusive and welcoming atmosphere in esports.
He was helped by the fact that 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.”
–Cory Van Dyke, Virginia Tech