Play of the game: A Parkite blazes trails in esports coaching Utah’s varsity Overwatch team (w/video)
March 12, 2018
A cacophony of mechanical keystrokes and clicking of mice accompanied by the steady hum of almost a dozen gaming computers plays out as one of the University of Utah's varsity esports teams conducts one of its triweekly practice sessions in the Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse. The array of PCs, each working hard to cool themselves, fills the room with hot air.
Assistant coach Evelynn "Eevee" Le, paces around the room and stops to look over the shoulder of Connor "Tettrum" Nicholls, a player. The Utes shout enemy locations and their own statuses to one another constantly as they face off against an opposing team in a public match of "Overwatch."
In the opposite corner sits Joe "Snap" Johnson, a native of Park City and the team's student head coach, watching intently from an in-game, bird's-eye view as a controlled chaos unfolds below. In the midst of the fight, an enemy player controlling Winston, a sentient gorilla with serious jumping ability, disrupts the Utes' defenses long enough for the opposing team to gain a foothold.
"Shoot the monkey," Johnson says, breaking a long silence from his end of the room. "Every time, every fight, shoot the monkey."
Coaching through experience
Parkites have cultivated a reputation for being competitors. After all, the mountain town hosted an Olympics, and winter sports stars like Sarah Hendrickson and Ted Ligety hail from the area.
Growing up around Jeremy Ranch, Johnson said he wasn't as interested in skiing and snowboarding as his peers. He enjoyed playing video games, far away from the piste.
Still, he carried the mean competitive streak of his contemporaries and it took him to a relatively new frontier: esports, or competitive video gaming.
"We had a '(Super) Smash Bros.' tournament at (Park City High School) … It was very competitive, and it kind of had that title of the high school's best Smash Bros. player and that was all very fascinating to me," Johnson said.
While he never took home the Smash title, his gaming skills progressed from there. Johnson's portfolio of semi-pro and professional gaming includes a number of first-person shooters that require quick reflexes and superior target acquisition abilities. With those skill sets in mind, Johnson's chosen nickname of "Snap" is a fitting one.
When developer Blizzard released "Overwatch" in 2016, Johnson was studying at the University of Utah's East Asia Campus in Incheon, South Korea. South Korea has the world's most-established culture of competitive gaming, and Johnson found himself spending many long nights in gaming-focused, social internet cafes unique to South Korea called PC bangs, mastering the new game alongside friends and reaching the game's highest public competitive level; the "Grandmaster" class, on the Asia server region.
"We would start at 6 or 7 p.m. and we would leave at 7 or 8 a.m. the next day," Johnson said.
Now a senior majoring in economics with a part-time class load and a full-time job, Johnson lends his playing expertise to the U.'s Overwatch squad. As coaches, he and Le provide real-time feedback in practice, analyze VODs (videos on demand, or game film) of matches and give the players goals to shoot for, much as a coaching staff does in any other sport.
"You're looking for somebody that has the right frame of mind, he's the same age of these players, but he can't completely be their peer; he has to be their coach," A.J. Dimick, director of the esports program, said of Johnson. "He is very compassionate with them, in that he has a lot of game knowledge, but he's very interested in being a teacher and helping these guys get better."
Esports are both physically and mentally demanding. Long hours spent practicing the kinds of quick, precise keyboard and mouse movement necessary for high-level play, as well as posture habits, can take a toll on players' bodies. Emotional toxicity among players has the potential to spread like a locker room flu, and Johnson says maintaining the team's morale is paramount. The Utes regularly go out to eat together and enjoy a friendly (and essential) chemistry. The esports program also employs a sports psychologist to assist in the head game as well.
Nicholls, a sophomore from Alpharetta, Georgia, plays "tank" heroes, so his role on the team requires close coordination with his teammates. He said that when his temper began to impact his performance, Johnson took notice.
"Every day before a match he said, 'Tettrum, if you get angry, I'm going to grief you down to plat,'" Nicholls said.
Translation: If Nicholls reinforced that habit, Johnson would seek out Nicholls anytime he played on his own time and put him at risk of falling to a much lower rank by hindering his team or outright focusing fire on his character.
"Eventually we all worked on it as a team, and we're all cleared up now," Nicholls said.
"Tettrum's improved a lot as a player," he said. "I think he's learned, himself, what he needs to strive to be doing to get good and focused during matches."
Johnson and his squad are part of something entirely new in the world of gaming. The U. made headlines by introducing the nation's first varsity collegiate esports program in 2017 under the banner of the university's Entertainment Arts and Engineering department, one of America's top programs for game design. The varsity esports effort evolved out of Crimson Gaming, a student organization.
Players receive scholarships to join the team, and must remain enrolled as full-time students for the duration of their playing careers. The soccer-style sponsored uniforms common to professional esports give way to University red numbers emblazoned with the trademark "U," jersey numbers and gamertags, which remain a unique part of the culture. The U. spearheaded the creation of the Pacific Alliance of Collegiate Gamers, an organization of esports teams that parallels the composition of the Pac-12 NCAA athletic conference, and a Utah-based student production team streams live broadcasts of PACG competition over Twitch.tv. Leading the program is Dimick, a former sports radio producer and athlete in his own right. Dimick says the U.'s experiment has momentum because support comes from both the participants and the university's administration.
"It isn't just something that the university tolerates or lets exist, but something that the university tries to make part of its main campus DNA, and be a part of the main campus culture here," Dimick said.
NCAA sanctioning is a distant goal for the program, Dimick said, as is installing a framework of professional, full-time coaching staffs, analysts and sports psychologists.
The U.'s support of the nascent program is reflective of trends nationwide. West of campus, the Utah Jazz has begun its own esports program, and Blizzard has poured money into its Overwatch League. The OWL is the highest level of "Overwatch" play, where household names like Shaquille O'Neal, Marshawn Lynch and Robert Kraft have stakes in regionally themed teams. While esports aren't yet an embedded part of North American culture, as they are in South Korea, and the sport still has room to mature in a number of ways, it has momentum, said Dimick.
Le, a sophomore from Draper who may take the reins of the team in the future, said she hopes the varsity team and others like it will help break down dismissive attitudes toward esports and the people who participate in them.
"It's instilling the Utes feeling inside myself because I don't go to the football games," Le said. "Having this esport is really fun to be able to represent myself as a Ute and to get my teammates to be as enthusiastic as I am about it."
On Tuesday night, the Utes faced off against their eastern neighbors, Colorado, in a PACG season matchup streamed on Utah's Twitch channel.
It was a rout. The Utes swept the Buffaloes across four maps, moving to a 2-0 record on the season. Under PACG tournament rules, head coaches can't interact with players during gameplay, but Johnson provided guidance during the breaks between each round.
"damn utah," commented GingerPocky, a Twitch user watching the broadcast.
"UTES!" said Daventry1701, another spectator.
The day after the match broadcast, Johnson said the team still has work to do.
"A lot of stuff we've been trying to focus on is focus … making sure we get the most out of our practices," Johnson said.
It's often said that practice makes perfect, and people like Johnson — who recruit, develop and advise players — might be what esports needs to break into the North American mainstream.