Story and photos by Laurie Merrill
GCU News Bureau
Individually, they are six video game fanatics but not necessarily serious competitors.
Put them together and you have Grand Canyon University’s varsity Overwatch team, a formidable force that ground its way from obscurity to ninth in the nation, beating teams like Clemson University and clawing its way into the Sweet 16 while thousands of spectators cheered on their favorites via live stream.
They were the only Arizona club to make it to the Sweet 16 in a league with 220 teams.
“We are really proud to be one of the first GCU eSports teams to reach this level,” said Justen Johns, Overwatch varsity captain. “We came from nowhere. We were unexpected. We were the underdog.”
Their dizzying rise came to a halt Thursday night, when the New Jersey Institute of Technology beat them 3-0, ending their hopes of a top-eight finish and a share of more than $120,000 in scholarship prizes.
“We came into this game as the ninth seed, and we lost to the eighth-seed team in the Sweet 16,” said John Kalua, GCU Project Manager Associate Director who acts as club advisor. “It was a tough night for the team because tonight's game was for a piece of the prize money. We have a strong team, and if all players return next season, it will be yet another season that the team will be together and another year of experience under their belts.’’
Before the match, energy and confidence were high among the six varsity players of Overwatch, a multi-player, first-person shooter game that features a host of colorful characters with distinct gifts.
The six players, wearing headsets, sit in a row of six computers in the Thunder Alley eSports room. Large monitors on the walls track the colorful, cartoon-like game with its lightning speed action. Each player is a different character. Some are tanks, who lead the charge, others are healers, and still more deal damage to the bad guys.
The students speak rapidly and urgently to communicate with their teammates as their fingers fly nimbly over the keys.
In addition to Patterson and Johns, the over-achieving group includes twins Kyle and Ethan Gunnerson, Ryan Wynia and Frank Leyva.
They represent GCU’s most competitive eSports club players. There are 18 other Overwatch players on JV and academy teams. Other students compete in such games as League of Legends, Counter Strike, Rocket League and Hearthstone.
What brought GCU’s fledgling Overwatch team – they only met in January – to such surprising success is the sheer number of practice hours and camaraderie.
Overwatch members practiced 12 hours a week as a team and at least 10 hours on their own.
“We have strong team synergy,” Patterson said. “Other teams have top players, but it’s our teamwork that makes us good. It’s about smart players. It’s about the mind."
Outside the club, they are best friends, Johns said. They let off steam by playing other games, such as miniature golf and laser tag.
“We are a community of people who share a common interest,” he said.
TCS co-host James Lee expressed admiration for how far GCU has come in such a short time.
“This is one of the upstarts in the collegiate series that did not have a roster last year and now (is) one match away from starting to win money and two matches away from making it to the finals and top four,” he said. “What a way to start off your collegiate eSports career.”
No one wanted to lose, but the team notched an impressive first season and a foundation for even greater success.
Said Johns, “It’s a really big accomplishment.”
Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or [email protected].