Three years later, UTA’s varsity esports program is still going strong
Eleven years ago, impassioned gamers banded together to form UTA’s esports club.
The club saw great success, culminating in winning the 2017 Heroes of the Dorm National Championship and over $500,000 in scholarships. By 2019, UTA joined the growing trend and shifted its esports club into a varsity program competing in three games: Rocket League, Overwatch and League of Legends.
Noah Flint, UTA’s esports assistant director, said these are a popular set of core titles that have well-established collegiate leagues and garner the most attention from viewers.
UTA added Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. to the program in 2021, according to previous Shorthorn reporting. While it remains popular, Flint said it lacks the publisher’s support for collegiate play compared to others.
Students who want a more relaxed gaming experience can join UTA’s esports club, and those looking to commit to practices and regulated competitive play can try out for a varsity team. Like traditional sports, the varsity esports program has GPA requirements and is only available to full-time students.
For those born before the 90s, esports is a term used to describe online gaming turned into a spectated event that mimics traditional sports. As of 2022, over 150 universities have recognized varsity esports programs, according to Next College Student Athlete, a college athlete recruiting website.
Unlike its non-virtual counterpart, esports is not regulated by the NCAA, so each game competes in various leagues, each with its own championships, he said. The independence allows prize money and scholarships to be awarded at tournaments.
Seasons also vary per title, but there are typically two per school year, Flint said. Most coincide with the fall and spring semesters, spanning from late August to mid-November and late January to May. Some titles, like League of Legends, compete in just one season per year.
Each league consists of regular-season play and the best teams compete in playoffs for the national championship tournament, he said. But in Collegiate Rocket League, which is hosted by the game's developers, players can compete in a world championship tournament. UTA placed in the top eight in the championship for the first time in June.
UTA’s Super Smash Bros. and Overwatch teams also saw success in the 2022 Electronic Gaming Federation National Championships. The Mavericks finished third in Overwatch, while the Smash Bros. team placed first and took home the regional championship.
“The students we have at UTA are incredibly talented, and they are very high level players. They’re some of the best in the state, some of the best in the country,” Flint said.
Each game demands a unique skill set and varies greatly in their rules and objectives.
League of Legends
League of Legends first hit the shelves in 2009 as Riot Games’ newest multiplayer online battle arena game. It became a staple for esports that has maintained popularity since release.
The game pits five against five with each team working together to destroy the opponents’ base, said Kenny Nguyen, League of Legends player.
Players are tasked with different objectives based on their character, Nguyen said. Some farm for materials while others inflict damage or heal teammates.
The team plays around two games a week when practicing for CyberLive!Arena, the esports league the team competes in during the spring season, he said.
Despite not placing high at the 2022 CyberLive!Arena tournament, Nguyen said he feels his team could go far next year as long as they put in the work.
Overwatch shares similarities to League’s multiplayer online battle arena strategies, but it’s within a first-person shooter. UTA's Overwatch captain Jacob Cortez called it a hybrid of the two genres.
It is a six-versus-six, competitive shooter where players can control three different types of role within a team, Cortez said. Those roles include two tanks, two support and two damage dealers. Players can also choose from a variety of characters with unique abilities tailored to their respective role, he said.
The game includes different modes, each with a different objective ranging from controlling a territory, escorting cargo to a hybrid of the two, Cortez said. In collegiate tournaments, teams will cycle through different modes every game.
Overwatch is a unique game compared to its competitors, he said.
“Just the characters and the atmosphere that game brings is just something that no other game has brought to my eyes so far,” he said.
The Mavericks’ season starts in late August, and the team practices twice a week until fall tournaments start, where they play three games per week, Cortez said.
Overwatch 2 comes out this October and brings a few gameplay changes, most notably a switch from six to five players, he said. This new wrinkle will keep consistency higher and improve the team’s success.
The team is coming off the heels of winning third place at the 2022 Electronic Gaming Federation tournament, an event it won in 2021. Cortez said he remains optimistic for the future.
“I just think having a community for everyone to thrive in is just awesome, and I am glad UTA has [the program],” he said.
Departing from its combat-centered brethren, Rocket League is the most like a traditional sport out of the program’s offerings.
Camden Johnson, UTA’s Rocket League captain, described it as soccer but with cars.
Collegiate Rocket League is played with three-person teams who work together to score goals, Johnson said. The games take place in an enclosed arena, similar to hockey, and common soccer strategies like passing and guarding are used.
In addition to the typical fall and spring seasons, UTA’s Rocket League team competes in the summer, averaging around three to five games per week year round, he said.
The Mavericks made it to the quarterfinals in the first-ever collegiate Rocket League world championships in June, according to previous Shorthorn reporting.
For Johnson, it was the most successful season the team has had so far. He said the team hopes to improve and qualify for the world championships again next season.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
The newest addition to the UTA esports program, the Super Smash Bros. series, has had a cult following since Super Smash Bros. Melee was released in 2001. The original game was released in 1999, and there have been many iterations since. The most recent, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, is used in competitive play.
The platform fighting game allows players to battle opponents with their favorite game characters, the team’s captain David Tran said.
Matches are one versus one, but each team has a five-player roster and as players are defeated another is substituted in, Tran said. The first to exhaust their full roster loses.
UTA’s Smash Bros. team competes every Tuesday in Electronic Gaming Federation’s spring season, he said. But there wasn’t a circuit during their first season last fall, so the team trained for the 2022 regional play.
There, the Mavericks won their first regional championship and moved on to nationals, where they placed seventh, Tran said.
Originally UTA’s Smash Bros. team was part of the esports club, but after proving to be a successful and talented group, the club transitioned to the varsity program in August 2021.
In less than a year, the team went from a club to a varsity national championship. However, their captain was not surprised.
“When we were playing for the club, I was under the impression that we were one of the best schools in the country,” Tran said. “And I made the point for it, and they added us to the varsity team, and we got the chance to prove it.”
Flint said after securing additional scholarship funding he plans to add Valorant to the lineup, a first-person shooter by Riot Games.
The program also offers opportunities outside competing as an athlete, he said. Students can find positions in areas such as commentary, graphic design and social media within the esports industry.
Flint encouraged those considering trying out for the esports program to come watch a game.
“The students work so hard. The staff works hard. The amount of passion, the amount of intensity… it's really comparable to what you would see in a traditional sport,” he said.