GCU team's season ends in ESPN edge-of-seat match

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

It was a nail-biter.

Orange Coast College toppled Grand Canyon University’s varsity Overwatch team in the first round of a best-of-five outing Friday in Houston at the inaugural ESPN Collegiate Esports Championship.

Then tournament underdog GCU rallied for victories over OCC in the next two rounds. Just one more round to win and GCU would advance to the semifinals of the biggest, most high-profile tournament in esports.

The team takes time out for an interview. (Contributed photo by Albert Lee)

But OCC took the fourth round and then, in overtime, the fifth, and it was OCC, not GCU, that moved on to the semifinals. (See the GCU vs. OCC match here).

“We did give it a fight,” said Oscar Esquer, a sophomore psychology major this fall and one of the GCU Overwatch varsity team’s six team members in a phone interview on Sunday from Houston. “I think a lot of people were calling this the most exciting match ... It was pretty close. Obviously, sadly, we lost, but I think we did get further than anyone expected.”

No one expected GCU to make it as far as it did in the tournament, which saw hundreds of teams from North America and Canada trying to make it to final games in Houston.

GCU varsity Overwatch team member David Cho is in the midst of battle against Orange Coast College on Friday at the ESPN Collegiate Esports Championship. (Contributed photo by Gabriel Christus/ESPN Images)

“To get to the Top 8, we took out the University of California, Irvine, which is a full scholarship team,” said recent computer science graduate and team captain Justen Johns. “They have support from coaches. They have an arena just like us. That (win against UCI) was THE most intense game, probably in the entire season, for Tespa (the Tespa esports league, in which GCU competes).”

“Every comment you heard about us was like, ‘Oh the Cinderella run of GCU. ‘Oh, how did you guys sneak into this event?’" Esquer said. “No one expected us to be here. But we were. And I think we did prove a point by taking on a school (OCC) that seemed quite strong, honestly. We still lost, but we did give it our best, and it did show on stage.”

Audiences packed the arena at the ESPN Collegiate Esports Championship in Houston this weekend. It was the inaugural year for the event. (Contributed photo by Gabriel Christus/ESPN Images)

Just making it to the quarterfinals at the ESPN esports championship was huge.

It meant GCU was one of the Top 8 teams in Overwatch out of 400 that competed in qualifiers hosted by Tespa and Collegiate StarLeague to earn their spot in the LAN (local area network) quarterfinals for the game. (ESPN also hosted the semifinals for Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition, Hearthstone, StarCraft II and Heroes of the Storm).

“This event was yet another step solidifying and legitimizing the ecosystem of esports in terms of where it stands in North America at the college level,” GCU Esports Coordinator Albert Lee said. “Even though it’s not pro, it is still very significant for the major players here in the college landscape. It just shows how much more these players and teams have grown and how the community in North America has grown.”

Making it this far in a tournament of this level wasn’t just happenstance.

The GCU Overwatch varsity team invests hours upon hours in scrimmages developing their skills. In the week before the tournament, they delved into four-hour daily practice sessions.

Besides the team’s dedication, Johns said the team owes a lot to their support system at GCU.

Team members are (from left) David Cho, Ethan Gunnerson, Justen Johns, Kyle Gunnerson, Oscar Esquer and Ryan Wynia. (Contributed photo by Albert Lee)

“We’re the only school in Arizona that has this esports arena,” Johns said of the new 1,706 square-foot facility on the second floor of the Technology Building. “It definitely shows because we were the only ones from Arizona at this event.”

Despite not advancing past its first match at the championships, the team stayed and watched the rest of the competition. Other schools battling for the top spot in Overwatch were Maryville, Carleton, Rutgers, Utah, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology -- with Harrisburg emerging as the winner.

The Lopes also spent time at Comicpalooza -- the ESPN Collegiate Esports Championship was just one of the events at Comicpalooza. They visited booths and even played a few games in another tournament hosted by professional Overwatch team the Houston Outlaws.

Lee said, “We got to see what strategies or plays the other schools brought to the table, including the main strongholds of the esports landscape that were here. We got to see all the top players in North America compete at their best.”

But being part of esports is more than competing. It’s also about community and building friendships with others who share the same interests.

“We have a bunch of teams that we’re kind of buddies with throughout the season. We hang out and scrimmage with each other, so just rooting on the other teams,” Johns said.

“I think one of the best things about being here was not just bonding with my team, but I got to meet so many interesting people from other teams, especially the OCC guys, the team we played,” Esquer said. “I’m honestly very happy that I got to talk to them.”

Hundreds of teams from the United States and Canada competed in qualifying matches to make it to the  quarterfinal and semifinal matches. (Contributed photo by Gabriel Christus/ESPN Images)

Then, of course, there’s the best part of these games and the whole esports experience, which is the friends you make -- the kind of friends you often make only in college.

For Esquer, who was in his first semester playing on the team, making it so far in esports, “is kind of insane to me,” he said -- and to be able to have such a memorable run alongside his teammates has made the experience even that more unforgettable.

“It’s not just, we sit down, we play a game, we all do what we want. It’s more of we understand each other,” he said of that camaraderie and chemistry a team must have to play the game well. “... I think that playing with these guys, I don’t see them as just teammates. They’re my best friends.”

The Collegiate Esports Championship
(Photo by Gabriel Christus/ESPN Images)

Lee said making it to the ESPN event means other schools that might never have heard of GCU now know about the University.

“We are an up and coming school to keep an eye on for esports. … Even after we were knocked out of the event, our team received invitations, from either coaches or administrators, to scrimmage and play against the other seven top teams,” Lee said.

Johns has high hopes the team can make it to the championships again next semester. The guys already are thinking about next year, and GCU is ready for it.

GCU's varsity Overwatch team arrives in Houston. (Contributed photo by Albert Lee)

The University is expecting the popularity of esports to continue to grow. Lee said he anticipates recruiting efforts to ramp up going into 2020, and plans are to expand the GCU Esports Arena just a year after the new space made its debut in the Technology Building. It will be doubling in size, improvements will be made to the training and free-use equipment, and a lounge and dedicated streaming section will be added.

“We just want to thank GCU for all the support -- sending us to this event with additional peripherals, and just esports, in general, providing us with this place to practice in and learn,” Johns said. “Just the amount of support has been massive from GCU. We’re really excited to get where we are.”

Reach GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: GCU’s Overwatch team eyes top spot at ESPN event

GCU Today: Game On — GCU clicks into the rise of esports

GCU Today: GCU esports to host internet cafe in new clubhouse

GCU Today: GCU Overwatch team reaches sweet 16


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