GCU's Overwatch team eyes top spot at ESPN event

Grand Canyon University's varsity Overwatch team defeated No. 2-ranked University of California, Irvine, to win a spot in ESPN's Collegiate Esports Championship this weekend in Houston.

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Gillian Rea

It’s Monday night at Grand Canyon University’s Esports Arena and all is quiet in the facility’s dimmed space, set aglow by the light of neatly lined-up rows of high-end computers.

The ESPN championship is the most high-profile tournament yet for GCU Esports, which has grown to become the second biggest club sport on campus.

Then a flurry of clicks and the spewing of “D.Va! (Diva) D.Va! D.Va!” and “Go left, go left, go left!!!!” interrupt the silence as the six members of the University’s varsity Overwatch team rally during a practice scrimmage.

This week, the Tespa league team has immersed itself in four-hour nightly practices to prepare for THE tournament – ESPN’s Collegiate Esports Championship. The event runs from today to Sunday at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston as part of the city’s annual Comicpalooza event. GCU plays its first match, against No. 7 Orange Coast College, at 11 a.m. today for a spot in Saturday's semifinal.

GCU, which was seeded 18th in Tespa's collegiate Overwatch tournament, will enter the ESPN championship quarterfinals as the underdog team after a shocking win over No. 2-ranked University of California, Irvine -- a victory that ESPN chronicled in a spotlight about GCU's "Cinderella run" and how it got to the quarterfinals.

Varsity Overwatch team captain Justen Johns

Of all the tournaments the team has played, “This is the biggest one,” Esports Club President and GCU varsity Overwatch team captain Justen Johns said.

It is the inaugural year for the championship. More than 100 student gamers from 20 colleges in the United States and Canada will be competing for scholarship money in not only Overwatch but Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Street Fighter V and StarCraft II. The top teams from each of the Tespa tournaments have been invited to battle for the top spot in the ESPN championship to see which is the best in college esports.

GCU’s Varsity Overwatch Team aims to be the best.

In 2017, the team broke into the Sweet 16 and reached No. 9 in the nation in Overwatch, a team-based, multiplayer, first-person shooter game. Players in the game work in concert to secure and defend control points on a map or escort a payload across the map.

At the ESPN championship, GCU’s team will be competing for scholarships totaling more than $10,000 for the winning team. It's a place the team didn't expect itself to be.

“It was super unexpected,” said sophomore computer programming major David Cho of the team's win against UC-Irvine. “I had NO idea it was going to happen. … After that match with UCI, everyone was screaming.”

“We were hoping for the best,” Johns said. “We knew it would be a tough match.”

“Being part of the inaugural ESPN Collegiate Esports Championship puts Grand Canyon University on an international stage,” said GCU Esports Coordinator Albert Lee. “… We are now prominently on display. It puts us on the map, and we're here to win.”

Once upon a time, Lee said, technology-focused schools would be the ones that would win the big tournaments. But that landscape has changed over the last few years as teams from a wider scope of colleges have turned a corner and made esports as much a part of their campus’ landscape as football, basketball or baseball.

It has been the same for GCU, where just a few years ago, a few like-minded gamers met casually for fun and hung out to play video games on a few computers. That grew into gamers meeting in a dedicated 15-computer space in Thunder Alley.

The six-man team is competing for more than $10,000 in scholarships at the ESPN event. Team members are Ryan Wynia, Oscar Esquer, Ethan Gunnerson, Justen Johns, Kyle Gunnerson and David Cho.

That space was nothing like the facility now: A 1,706-square-foot esports facility touting the cushy gaming chairs, 36 high-end gaming PCs (complete with clear glass cases to show off the computers’ inner workings), seven PlayStation 4’s and Xbox One consoles, a tournament station with a 75-inch TV and, of course, purple GCU mood lighting that illuminates the space alongside the glow of the computer monitors.

With more than 650 registered undergraduate, on-campus members (900 if you count everyone else), GCU Esports can now tout it’s the second biggest club sport on campus. Almost 100 of those members are collegiate players peppered across 17 competitive teams, from Counter Strike: GO to Fortnite, League of Legends, Rocket League and Hearthstone, to name a few.

“We’re almost approaching Havocs territory (in sheer numbers),” Johns said.

Events like the ESPN Collegiate Esports Championship add that next level of relevancy to esports. What was once for-fun living-room gaming fodder among friends has exploded into full-fledged collegiate and professional games, complete with major sponsors, significant prize and scholarship money, the evolution to league-type tournaments and team-oriented play.

The appeal of Overwatch is that, like many other collegiate sports, it involves team play.

At Tuesday night’s practice, GCU’s Varsity Overwatch Team unleashed warnings to each other: “Monkey! Monkey! Monkey!!!” (referring to the game’s character, Winston) and “Ana! Ana! Ana!!! (one of the Overwatch heroes) Break … break! We can kill her!”

“Normally, we wouldn’t be acting the way we do with each other,” senior electrical engineering major and GCU Varsity Overwatch team member Ethan Gunnerson said. “But playing this game, that’s how it forces you to get. … I’m completely different in class; I’m super quiet.”

Gunnerson added that when the team is together practicing, it’s a lot of friendly banter.

“As a freshman, this was the fastest way I got new friends,” Cho said. “I love coming here.”

“It’s another side of college,” Johns added of the esports realm. “You get to hang out with a bunch of guys or girls, play games and share time with those who have similar interests.”

But, at crunch time, and as the ESPN tournament gets ready to unfold this weekend, it’s also serious business. Four-hour scrimmage sessions were on tap in the week leading up to the tournament (the team usually practices for two hours three times a week).

The team put in four-hour nightly practices to prepare for this weekend's games.

ESPN then flew the team out to Houston Thursday.

All the excitement of winning a spot in such a high-profile tournament is just the latest in GCU’s esports evolution.

The University’s esports program was named recently by Liquid Luck as one of the Top 50 World-Class College Esports Programs That Dominate the Competition.

And there’s no slowing down.

Plans are in place to expand the campus’ new arena -- the facility on the second floor of the Technology Building is just a year old -- in time for a grand re-opening in the fall. The facility will be doubling in size and making improvements to the training and free-use equipment, adding a lounge and a dedicated streaming section. It shows the investment the University is dedicated to making in esports.

“As we go into 2020, we’ll be expanding our recruiting efforts,” Lee added, emphasizing how the University is expecting significant growth in esports in the coming academic year.

That kind of forward thinking, at least for now, is something GCU’s varsity Overwatch team is putting on pause as it prepares to compete at the most significant gaming tournament GCU Esports has competed in yet.

“We’ve been preparing all semester for this,” Johns said.

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


Related content:

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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