Parkite helps lead Utah to runner up in ESPN’s inaugural college esports tournament
The University of Utah broke new ground last weekend as one of its varsity esports teams traveled to Houston to compete in the first-ever ESPN Collegiate Esports Championship, taking second place in its national Overwatch tournament.
The Utes may not have made it that far, however, without the contributions of a Parkite who has been with the team from the start.
The program’s director, A.J. Dimick, said the team’s coaching staff, which includes Jeremy Ranch native Joe Johnson, was “essential” to the team’s unexpected run to the championship on the biggest stage it has ever occupied.
“Relative to where we started and where we ended off being a very viable contender for national champion, our coaching staff with Joe Johnson, (head coach Evelyn Le and associate coach Dave Abueg) are the best coaching staff in the country in the collegiate space,” Dimick said. “They deserve a lot of credit for how this went and we are an extraordinarily lucky team to have their services.”
While the Utes fell to the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology Storm 3-1 in the Overwatch final, the trip to Texas was already a win for a number of reasons for Johnson and the rising college esports program he is helping develop.
“We’re trying to establish the program to be more than a competitive venture, we’re trying to make it an institution here at the university,” Johnson, a graduate associate head coach who focuses on player development, said in an interview prior to the tournament. “We want to have Utah be the place where people want to come play esports.”
The inaugural ESPN-organized set of esports tournaments featured North America’s top collegiate competitors in Overwatch, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Starcraft II and Street Fighter V was broadcast live May 10 through May 12 at Houston’s annual Comicpalooza convention. As the sports broadcasting juggernaut steadily invests more in esports, the tournament represented the biggest spotlight the team has garnered so far.
It was a chance for Johnson and the Utes to prove an established college sports brand could hang with the best in a sport that isn’t played on turf, hardwood or balance beams.
Dimick said he was “amazingly proud” of how the Overwatch team fared. The coaching staff is essential to the program’s success in Overwatch, a first-person shooter where two teams of six face off to attack and defend objectives.
The Utes are one of the top Overwatch teams in the PACG, an esports league roughly equivalent to the Pac-12 in the NCAA.
“I think we’re an extraordinary lucky team to have their services here,” Dimick said.
While they’d made the quarterfinals of a similar online tournament last year, this time the Utes found themselves on a stage that was magnitudes of order larger than anything the Utah varsity esports program has occupied before. Live on two of the highest profile channels on Twitch, a gaming-focused streaming platform, competed on the same stage as their opponents in front of an audience at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston (not to mention thousands of viewers spread between the Blizzard and ESPN Esports channels).
Dimick, who formerly worked in sports media, said watching the Utes walk onstage at an ESPN-produced event, clad in the Utes’ crimson and white jerseys and with the requisite commentary and entrance music was a “dream come true.”
In an inversion of the usual narrative that accompanies national college sports competitions in the spring, Utah was a major underdog against Harrisburg. In the nascent college esports scene, small, STEM-focused universities like Harrisburg have had more readily available resources to develop top-flight programs. The Pac-12’s Utah and Big Ten’s Rutgers, the only two teams representing traditional NCAA power conferences in the tournament, found themselves the outsiders.
“There were long odds, and the resources (Harrisburg) has garnered are considerable,” Dimick said. “This was a call to arms of what we can do here if we allocate more resources for esports; we can be a national leader.”
Unfortunately for the Utes and the Scarlet Knights, who maintain a relationship as sparring partners, one had to go in the first round of the tournament. The Utes shut out their friendly rivals 3-0 before besting Orange Coast College out of Costa Mesa, California, in the semifinal, 3-0. In the final, Utah managed to stretch out the match against the Storm, who had traveled from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to four rounds before falling 3-1.
Johnson, who lives in Salt Lake City and works in property management in Park City, said he wants to continue having a role in building Utah’s ambitious varsity esports program, which university officials hope, one day, will compete in a yet-unorganized NCAA esports league.
“I would prefer to stick around here and grow things and try and see this program become a lot bigger than just me and the people around here,” Johnson said.
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