By Brittany Magelssen
If your concept of a collegiate video-game player elicits the image of a student alone in his dorm room surrounded by empty snack wrappers and energy drinks, think again.
Esports, the competitive side of video games, is taking off at universities across the country.
The University of Texas at Dallas launched its own esports program in fall 2018, making it one of the few universities in Texas to offer esports under the umbrella of the athletics department, along with more traditional sports like basketball, volleyball and track.
“It does seem fitting that esports is the newest addition for the athletic programs,” said Dr. Gene Fitch Jr., vice president for student affairs. “To say that this was the perfect match is probably an understatement.
“Video gaming and UTD go together like peanut butter and jelly, or hot sauce and chicken wings. It was just a matter of time before the vision was realized, and now, here we are. This phenomenon known as esports has found its home at UT Dallas.”
Esports team members are held to the same standard as their Comet sports peers. They must maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA while also upholding a code of conduct when representing the University. Students also serve in support roles as analysts and assistant coaches.
“It’s nice to have esports at a collegiate level because it allows students to not only get the competitive experience, but also the education they want,” said coach Greg Adler.
According to ESPN, varsity collegiate esports began in 2014 when Robert Morris University in Illinois announced a scholarship-sponsored “League of Legends” team. By 2019 the scene included around 145 colleges and universities and a national governing body known as the National Association of Collegiate Esports.
The first games UT Dallas teammates played competitively were “League of Legends” and “Overwatch” — two popular, multiplayer online games.
In January, UT Dallas appeared in the inaugural ESPN Top 25 College League of Legends Coaches Poll. The Comets ended the season ranked 20th in the nation.
The season ended for one of two “League of Legends” teams in the quarterfinals of their playoffs after a loss to UT Austin. One of two “Overwatch” teams made it to the Sweet 16 in their tournament, but lost to Missouri’s Maryville University, the No. 1 team in the country.
UT Dallas was the only school in the country to have two “Overwatch” teams make it to the Top 64.
In February, the program announced its third official team with the addition of “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.” The 2018 crossover fighting game is a competitive favorite in which players battle to be the last one standing on a stage. It features more than 70 different characters, including Mario, Donkey Kong, Pikachu, Zelda, Link and Pac-Man.
Garrett Porter, an “Overwatch” team member, said esports can be as competitive as traditional sports.
“The level of skill involved can be just as much as any other sport,” said Porter, a junior in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication (ATEC). “It is serious; there are people who put a lot of time into it and can get really good at it.”
“‘Super Smash Bros.’ is a game series that has existed at a highly competitive level since its debut in 1999, so we’re confident that the game will have longevity,” Adler said. “With ‘Ultimate,’ the latest installment in the series, we saw how successful our students were and knew this would be the perfect addition to our program.”
The “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” team won first place in the Collegiate Starleague Southern Division Conference in May, ranking UT Dallas No. 1 in the South. The team will travel to Massachusetts in August to compete in nationals at Shine 2019, one of the largest “Smash” tournaments in the world.
A love of gaming isn’t new to UT Dallas, known for its “nerd” culture. ATEC’s game design programs have been ranked among the nation’s best. The Student Services Building Addition, which opened in January 2017, features a gaming wall where students play games like “FIFA 17” and “Star Wars Battlefront.” The University is also home to many video game-related research projects, lectures and events.
Esports is the 14th varsity sport at UT Dallas.
“Overwatch” analyst Lindsay Caudill, a junior marketing major, said UT Dallas is the perfect environment for an esports team.
“We have a bunch of bright, intelligent students that come here, and a lot of them do like to spend their time gaming,” she said. “There’s a big passion for it, and no one is shy when they talk about gaming.”
Alum Energizes Esports With Gift To Name Arena
DANIEL SHEN BS’10 remembers when his older brother brought home the family’s first computer.
It was a foreign object. A big box that their parents did not understand. He looked on in awe while his brother played games like “Tetris” and “Pong.”
Shen went on to enjoy games such as “StarCraft,” “Counter-Strike” and “League of Legends,” and even played “World of Warcraft” competitively full-time from 2006 to 2008.
As a gamer himself, the alumnus wants to help develop esports at UT Dallas. His $100,000 gift has named the new Sector 7 Energy UT Dallas Esports Gaming Arena, a facility in the Student Union where the esports teams train and play.
“Watching it evolve into what it is today is very fascinating, considering a decade ago when I attended UTD, you couldn’t fathom any university adopting esports as part of its athletics program, let alone even recognizing it as something good for students or athletes,” said Shen, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. He founded the Plano-based energy-consulting firm Sector 7 Energy in 2015.
Shen said he is proud that UT Dallas is at the forefront of the development of this industry. He hopes his first gift to the University will help propel the program’s expansion and the teams’ successes in league matches.
The 24-seat arena has four 80-inch TVs for match viewing, a cubicle for the coach, Alienware Gaming PCs and custom chairs.
“The space is incredible,” Shen said. “I expected it to be simpler, but they’ve made an actual arena on campus with professional equipment.”
In his remarks during a dedication and ribbon cutting for the esports training room, UT Dallas President Richard C. Benson shared Shen’s enthusiasm.
“It is hard not to be utterly astounded by the level of excitement that esports generates,” said Benson, who is also the Eugene McDermott Distinguished University Chair of Leadership. “I’m really pleased that we are part of this trend.”
Daniel Shen’s $100,000 gift has named the new Sector 7 Energy Esports Gaming Arena, where members of the UT Dallas esports teams train and play. Shen’s passion for video games is reflected in the name of his energy consulting firm, named after a sector in the video game “Final Fantasy VII.” His company’s corporate facility features an esports room and an arcade for its employees
Dreams of eVictory
LAST FALL, GREG ADLER scored his dream job.
“Greg will be part of history as UTD’s first esports coach,” said UT Dallas athletics director Bill Petitt. “He brings a passion and knowledge of both games we initially launched, and I feel he will be a great ambassador of our university and will help us become a program that will be recognized globally.”
A native of Holland, Pennsylvania, Adler earned his bachelor’s degree in music education from Kutztown University in 2015. As a student, Adler maintained an active esports schedule and competed at a high level in both “League of Legends” and “Overwatch.”
Upon graduation, Adler formed the PMA League of Legends Championship Series, creating and running a 10-team, 10-week “League of Legends” tournament. He also is a past representative with the New York Excelsior team in the “Overwatch” League.
“I am extremely excited to help develop the esports program within UTD,” Adler said. “The potential for success and growth is limitless, and, with the support the administration has shown, this program will become the premier example of collegiate esports in the country.”