By Kevin Fornari, published 2/8/2018
The daily stresses of waking up on time, doing classwork, studying, maintaining grades and remaining healthy can all vanish for nine hours at a time. Every three Fridays, COBA 245E transforms from a normal classroom into a world of excitement, shouting, friendly rivalries and competition, a stage for all backgrounds; it becomes the home of UT Arlington Esports.
The club’s purpose is different for everyone. It serves any type of gamer, casual or competitive, console or computer, said Patrick “ShadowSmile” Smiley, professional mentor and former president.
Smiley said although UTA Esports largely focuses on casual players, the club needs to develop its esports infrastructure.
He explained esports, or competitive gaming, is an effective method of gaining local, state and national recognition. Similar to traditional sports, players practice their game for dozens of hours a week, testing not only their skills, but also their time and dedication.
The club was founded in late spring of 2010, around the premier esport at the time: StarCraft. The later release of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty on July 27, 2010 further grew the organization’s competitive spirit.
Smiley attended UTA starting September 2010, and decided to look into the club as a way of making friends. Although he wasn’t great at the game, he had a passion for esports, competing for over two years in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare during high school.
After attending his first event, a local area network party where people come together bringing their own consoles and computers to play what they want, he said the club’s pursuits lined up with his.
Gradually, Smiley got more involved with the club and attended officer meetings. He said his first major project was improving the brand identity of the club.
“If you see a logo just randomly thrown up, do you know who it is?” Smiley said.
Smiley said there was little knowledge of what esports or the club was among many students, faculty and casual gamers. Another problem is the club needs to effectively inform a new generation of students every semester.
Another aspect of the club’s brand is the morals and core values it stands behind.
Maintaining grades, developing life skills, fostering healthy competition, providing low-cost entertainment and listening to the individual are some of UTA Esports’ core values, said Christian Gross, president and industrial engineering junior.
Gross said it’s important to uphold these tenets as a collegiate organization. He said students may struggle with the new challenge of college, and the organization should help whenever it can. Even the five dollar admission can be too much for some.
“I would ideally love a world where we could make LANs free,” Gross said. “We currently have all concessions as close to cost as possible.”
Gross said all money goes back into the club for cables, prizes, team registrations, hundred-dollar ethernet switches and other expensive equipment. He said officers also have to share the burden, whether it be paying for gas, storing equipment in their homes or sacrificing their time to manage events.
Koji Sujaritpakdee, alumnus and army veteran said he attended his first LAN in fall 2012 with 18 years of computer gaming under his belt. After a few events, he aspired to use his army training to build a coaching system tailored to competitive gamers.
“I never found it all that different from training new soldiers, even with the lack of some drilled discipline,” Sujaritpakdee said. “In retrospect, I find competitive esports players to be far more disciplined than most people I've met outside of the military.”
The organization began evolving to field more support staff like coaches and analysts.
With new coaching infrastructure, brand identity and pool of potential student athletes, the stage was set for UTA’s esport revolution.
Smiley said he built trust among the officers and noticed the raw talent brewing within the club. With his mind still on competitive gaming, he proposed to unite the club under a new team: Team Blaze.
In 2012 he created and managed the team, eventually branching out into promising games like League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm.
Initially, the team didn’t do as well as they hoped, said Eugene “Yuuj” Tseng, former team member and finance alumnus.
Tseng joined the club, and later the team, in 2013. He said the team placed highly, but seasons never ended satisfactorily for its members.
In 2015, team members started playing the new Heroes of the Storm game in conjunction with League of Legends. Tseng said it soon became apparent they couldn’t remain highly competitive in both, so they decided to put all their focus into Heroes of the Storm.
Eventually the team competed in the first Heroes of the Dorm in March 2015, a yearly tournament open to all colleges from America and Canada. UTA lost in the round of 16 to Arizona State University, which ended up placing second in the tournament.
Almost immediately following the loss, Smiley decided to double down and make Team Blaze a professional team linked to UTA.
“We’re trying to make ourselves better by playing better players,” Tseng said.
Tseng said the idea was the team would practice and compete against other professional teams to eventually come back and dominate the collegiate scene.
The team saw moderate success in the professional scene, winning a total of over $10,000, beating established organizations like Luminosity Gaming and taking games off Cloud9.
Tseng said the team gained notoriety by being the best amateur team in North America. He said many colleges were surprised in March 2016 when they saw UTA was fielding professional players in that year’s Heroes of the Dorm.
Once again, UTA faced Arizona State University, this time in the finals. Tseng said the team was ahead in game one, but ended up throwing their lead and losing. That, combined with UTA being easy to research, frustrated the team, leading them to play on edge for the rest of the series and face defeat once again.
Tseng said practicing against professional teams for a year and still not winning Heroes of the Dorm distraught the team, eventually leading them to disband shortly after the tournament.
While the Heroes of the Storm team had been practicing and playing against the nation’s top colleges, new leadership was maturing to later grow the club and take advantage of recent competitive successes.
Aaron Mance, professional mentor and information systems senior was one of the new leaders. Originally attending an officer meeting in the summer of 2015 as a representative from Dell, Mance ended up joining the club, later becoming vice president.
Mance said the most popular game within the club was now League of Legends. He coordinated the fall 2015 League of Legends tournament with 16 teams of five signed up along with normal LAN attendees.
With the club’s growth, officers wanted to cater to more students. This lead to initiatives like Super Smash Bros. tournaments, online game nights, one-hour competitions and group outings.
Although these projects had mixed results, the club continued to grow and its officers became more open to change.
One new idea was to consolidate communication and information in one location.
Smiley said members would end up missing events and unique moments if they weren’t constantly online.
“Unless you’re on when we’re on, you’re going to miss something,” Smiley said.
The club found a solution in spring 2016 in the form of a chat program known as Discord.
Mance said the program is a mixture of Facebook and Skype: it revolutionized the way the club and its members communicated.
After promoting Discord and partnering with the company for extra bandwidth, the program took off within the club. There are over 800 registered users on the UTA Esports server from different backgrounds and academic majors.
“You name it, we have it basically,” Mance said.
Mance said the variety of members lead to the creation of several chat rooms. Rooms like homework help, tech support, the recent addition of a room dedicated to group outings including group workouts and another for memes were created.
A big draw of the club is there’s something for everyone. Mance said this can come in the form of different games and competitions - like a 30-person rock-paper-scissors tournament, which culminated in two players facing off with roaring masses behind both of them.
“It’s just kind of evolving to knowing what the wants and needs of your members and players are, and then evolving the club to suit that,” Mance said.
Shortly after Mance attended his first meeting, Gross attended his first event in fall 2015.
Gross said he didn’t have high expectations going into it. When he entered the room, he was surprised to see a diverse, active and outgoing student population, starkly contrasting the stereotypical antisocial gamer.
Gross took further interest in the club, eventually helping officers with simple tasks and attending meetings.
He said there was much the club was doing right, but there were things the club was doing suboptimally which he wanted to fix.
“When I joined the organization, I saw a lot of things going right and a lot of things that were being missed,” Gross said. “A lot of unfulfilled potential within the organization, especially with the results that they were already getting.”
One of the problems Gross saw was the inefficient division of labor. At the time, most officers didn’t have a designated job, leading to confusion due to the lack of clearly defined responsibilities.
The problem was partially fixed by creating defined positions like tournament coordinators and team managers, while also maintaining unnamed officer positions.
The club then began to focus on better serving one of the largest gaming populations at UTA: the fighting game community.
There had been several initiatives like organizing tournaments, but usually fighting game players were relegated to the back of LAN parties while the event focused on more popular games like League of Legends.
To accommodate these players, Maverick Mayhem was born in fall 2016. Maverick Mayhem is a weekly event hosted on Fridays, focusing mainly on the Super Smash Bros. franchise.
However, it isn’t branded as a Super Smash Bros. event, allowing the incorporation of different fighting games at any time, Mance said.
With a developing fighting game community, a structured officer body, growing attendance, a large competitive talent pool, consolidated communication, a strong brand and a stream of new ideas, UTA Esports was set to have its name echo throughout eternity.
On fall 2016, three members of former Team Blaze created a new team with two other students. The ultimate purpose: finally winning Heroes of the Dorm.
All teammates were ranked top 200 on the North American server at one point, with varying degrees of competitive experience.
Tseng said the team focused heavily on mentality so they wouldn' repeat the mistakes of last year. He said mistakes constantly happen at any level of competition. What’s important is to maintain composure and adapt before the opponent can capitalize.
The final opportunity for most of the team to win Heroes of the Dorm was upon them. On Mar. 18, the top 64 colleges began competing.
Over the next eight days, UTA outmaneuvered every college they faced, mimicking professional tactics other schools couldn’t follow, Tseng said. After the bracket stage, they ended up in the semifinals, not dropping a single game.
On Apr. 8, the final matches were set to begin in an event called the Heroic Four, hosted in Las Vegas.
The matches were broadcasted live with UTA and UNT partnering to host dual viewing parties and stream their reactions. Both schools were excited and received free paraphernalia like thunder sticks to add even more passion to the event.
It was one of the most enthusiastic events hosted by the club with organized cheers, applause and the occasional whoop, Gross said.
UTA went undefeated against the University of California, Irvine and solidified their place in the finals. UTA president Vistasp Karbhari further added to the excitement tweeting “On to the Grand Finals 2nd time in 2 years Let's go Mavs!”
The final series was between UTA and Louisiana State University in a best-of-five format.
The games were far from perfect, Tseng said. He said he leveled up the wrong ultimate ability leading to a poor outcome in a teamfight. This forced the team to change their style and plan in the middle of the game.
Despite several mistakes and players getting caught out of position, UTA kept winning games. UTA was up two games, with one game between them and the title of national champion.
Throughout the final game, LSU kept trying to catch members of UTA out of position. This strategy ended up backfiring as UTA collapsed around whoever was caught, turning the fight before anyone was killed. LSU looked lost, sticking to this tactic and further widening the deficit between the two teams.
LSU eventually funneled into a choke point thinking they’d cornered three members of UTA. LSU engaged on UTA in a five versus three but then two members of UTA jumped over the wall, comboing their abilities and killing all members of LSU without sustaining any casualties.
UTA was pushing for the win which led to LSU taking one last, desperate fight. UTA was too far ahead and wiped LSU once again.
Slowly players, casters and spectators realized the series was about to be over; UTA had won.
Although the crowd erupted in cheering, Tseng said the team was still focused on the game and didn’t fully realize they finally achieved the goal they set out to achieve years ago.
Exhausted and relieved, Tseng let his emotions out, summarizing the team’s feelings during the post-game interview.
“We finally won something!” Tseng said. “It’s been so long; we finally won something.”
Shortly after winning Heroes of the Dorm, a banner was placed outside Davis Hall honoring the Heroes of the Storm and cheerleading teams for winning national championships within days of each other.
Smiley said winning a national title led to the club finally being recognized by administration.
About two weeks later on Apr. 24, all of UTA Esports was recognized, receiving the Outstanding Student Organization award.
“ [The award] [r]ecognizes the student organization that demonstrated consistent flexibility, initiative, creativity, and dedication. Made a meaningful contribution to students, the University, and/or the surrounding community. Organized activities, events, and programs that have had a significant impact on the quality of campus life at UT Arlington,” according to the student organization section of uta.edu.
Shortly after receiving the award, the club elected its new president in May: current president Christian Gross.
Gross wanted to completely fix the ambiguity of officer roles as his first project. His solution was to do away with unnamed officer positions, giving every officer a title with specific responsibilities and establishing a clear chain of command.
With diversity in expertise, officers began working on growing the organization and securing more amenities for members, Gross said.
The first major step the club took within UTA was renting the Bluebonnet Ballroom on Sep. 29, for its first LAN of the new semester.
The Bluebonnet LAN was designed to show the club at its best by featuring prizes, food, random events and a 16-team League of Legends tournament with more consoles, computers and space than ever, Gross said.
The event had been advertised and hyped up for months to incoming transfer students and freshman. Gross said the success of the event could grow the club significantly and usher in a golden age of esports at UTA.
Computer science freshman Cain Thomas was one incoming freshman who heard about the Bluebonnet LAN during his summer orientation.
Thomas said he joined the Discord server hours after and progressively got more involved with the club. He noticed many members shared his interests including his taste in niche music artists like t+pazolite.
Thomas ended up registering for the League of Legends tournament at the Bluebonnet LAN. He was excited because he’d never registered for a tournament like it and practiced heavily in anticipation.
The LAN was set to start three hours earlier than usual to accommodate the scale and number of events planned.
At the beginning, everything was going fairly smoothly without many problems. Gross said he was running around for most of the event to help officers and members. He said he was acclimated to this as he used to run LAN parties in three different rooms simultaneously during high school.
Shortly after the League of Legends tournament started, major internet and power problems began. Some teams were forced to delay matches over an hour and other members couldn’t use their rigs for up to five hours.
Gross said what made it worse was the officers had little control over the technical issues. He said they were working mostly with university equipment and were largely uninvolved with setting up the venue.
Problems kept occurring and all Super Smash Bros. players were relocated to another room.
Gross started to feel like the LAN was a failure, but something strange happened when he sat down and observed the room. Similar to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” he expected most people to have left and the remaining attendees to be miserable.
Instead, people were still laughing and having a good time. He said even people who couldn’t play at their seat found ways to enjoy themselves. Attendees were socializing or watching others play and jokingly teasing them.
“People didn’t care,” Gross said. “They were there for the community, through thick and thin.”
Gross said despite tech difficulties, the event peaked at about 240 attendees with over 1,000 unique visitors.
He said he’s more excited than ever to be working with both members and officers. Gross said many members are willing to help out and officers spend inane amounts of the time making sure the club succeeds.
“Without a doubt, I can say that our officer team right now is putting crazy amounts of time and effort to make sure that this organization gets to a place that we can all be proud of and that our members are going to be able to enjoy,” Gross said.
Despite the many complications of the Bluebonnet LAN, event attendance and membership are still increasing. The last two LANs peaked at 180 and 200 people with approximately 600 unique visitors each. The club usually gets similar attendance only once a semester, but now COBA 245E is packed, sometimes with less than ten seats available.
Club pride is growing especially within West “Solio” Meyers, accounting and finance freshman.
West is part of the Super Smash Bros. 4 team and participated in the Oct. 13 Maverick Mayhem tournament. He said the community is great because he is surrounded by friends which allows him to stay positive.
“If I lose, my friend wins,” West said.
West said this attitude allows him to play calmly as there’s less pressure on him.
However, during that week’s tournament, West faced a student outside UTA in the finals.
Through the entire best-of-five match, West remained calm. He acknowledged when he made a mistake and even joked around with his opponent.
After back-and-forth games, the series came down to the fifth game. Despite being down one life, West managed to come back, win the match and the entire tournament.
Even with the crowd excited and winning the grand prize, West said the best feeling was reclaiming the title for UTA which had mostly been taken by outside competitors.
The event attracts so many people since it’s the best run Super Smash Bros. weekly tournament in DFW, West said.
Mitchell “Mijo” Calzada, Tarrant County College business sophomore said he enjoys searching for new talent, which is one of the reasons he attends Maverick Mayhem. He said the DFW Super Smash Bros. community is filled with rising players willing to share knowledge and tips.
Calzada said a major reason he shares information is to create better training partners.
“I can’t get better if others don’t get better,” Calzada said.
Smiley said competition and the pride it brings is something he’s always aimed for within the organization. He said the club is open to everyone, but hopes members find their competitive spirit through the organization.
Smiley said a prime example of casual players turning competitive is aerospace engineering junior Tazim Sobhan.
Sobhan found his passion in a rhythm game called osu! He went from enjoying the game, to progressively improving to passing most members’ rankings, currently ranked top 60,000 in the world.
Sobhan enjoys the game so much, he’s become one of the coordinators for the game, bought special gaming peripherals for the game and changed his username to “p-tazolite,” leading to the instant connection between him and Thomas.
Despite all this, Sobhan still considers himself a casual player, regardless of how many competitions he’s entered.
Competition is also growing within the club’s online community, both in quantity and quality, Gross said.
One driving factor is the online matches and competitions members play against each other. These matches allow for players to test their skills and strive to improve and surpass one another.
For League of Legends, some players can get a great sense of pride and aspiration, said Kevin “xKace” Choi, UTA alumnus and UT Dallas computer science sophomore. Choi said he’s taken it upon himself to put those who get a bit too cocky in their place.
“I’m actually just 80 times better than everyone,” Choi said sarcastically. “That’s all there is to it.”
Gross said a healthy amount of banter can improve the club by boosting satisfaction and increasing competition.
Gross occasionally joins in on the fun, self-proclaiming himself as the “xKace” slayer despite the massive skill difference between the two.
With all the positive forces behind the organization, Gross said he’s hopeful and excited for the future. One of his future goals is for UTA to build an esports arena and award scholarships to players.
Gross said he has many metrics to measure his success as president. One of those metrics is for esports to be so incorporated into UTA, it becomes a major selling point and source of pride for the university.
“I want it to be that when I leave the university, I walk past one of the groups of potential either transfer students or new freshman coming in and overhear them saying ‘... and we have an awesome esports program at UT Arlington,’” Gross said.