One by one, they climbed onto the stage and signed their names into the book resting on the lectern.
When they put the pen back down, Bovey Zhang – the inaugural coach of the Triton esports program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis – was waiting to hand each new player a box containing their uniform jerseys, and they walked over to Chancellor Kristin Sobolik to pose for pictures.
In all, 21 varsity players were officially welcomed into the Triton esports program on Thursday afternoon during an invitation-only event that also served as the grand opening for the recently remodeled Triton Esports Arena on the ground floor of the Millennium Student Center.
“I’m just really happy,” said Joseph Lee, who had the honor of being the first player to sign onto the new program. “The little kid in me is excited that there’s some type of support at all. I’m a junior here at UMSL. I study criminal justice as my major, and when I first came here, I came for the sake of my professional career, what I want to study and what I want to do in the future. Gaming was kind of a side thing that I couldn’t really do much with because there was no backing, there was not much support. To have UMSL being willing to step in, have an esports team, support it and want us to do more with it, it feels great. It feels awesome.”
Many parents and friends of the varsity players – including some who have received spots on a junior varsity roster – were on hand to share in the celebration.
Lee won his place on the roster and a scholarship by winning a Super Smash Bros. Ultimate tournament held in August to help spread the word and build interest in the fledgling Triton esports program among UMSL students. But like so many of his new teammates, Lee is an experienced gamer and boasts a top-10 ranking within the St. Louis region in the Nintendo crossover fighting game.
“The quality is amazing,” Zhang said. “Being in St. Louis, you can see how vibrant and talented the community is here. It’s great to see that we already have an initial pool for esports with competitive players, so it’s awesome.”
The 21 new varsity players will compete in highly organized, competitive tournaments against players from other colleges and universities. They’re starting out focusing on five multiplayer video games. In addition to Super Smash Bros., the Triton esports program will open with teams focused on Overwatch, Valorant, League of Legends and FIFA.
UMSL’s partnership with St. Louis CITY SC and its own esports program, featuring eMLS champion Niklas Raseck, made assembling a team in FIFA an easy choice. Robert Stevson, a senior majoring in civil engineering through the UMSL/Washington University Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program, is proud to be the first member of that squad.
“As soon as I saw that they were doing FIFA, I came down here, walked in and gave them my information,” said Stevson, who is an avid soccer player in real life. “I told them, ‘I want to do whatever it takes to get the play in a tournament.’ It’s really cool because I think FIFA doesn’t always get big representation because it’s not as big of a sport over here in the United States. It was cool that they included it here over some other things.”
Stevson’s only regret is that the opportunity to test himself in a competitive esports setting didn’t arrive sooner in his college experience.
But it’s also impressive how quickly the program has come together.
“Thank you to the UMSL community for allowing us to create this program,” said Reggie Hill, UMSL’s vice chancellor for strategic enrollment and career advancement, while addressing the audience during Thursday’s event. “About a year and half ago, this was a white paper. Steve (Berberich, UMSL’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs) and I were going back and forth saying we wanted to create an esports program. I think half the room thought we were crazy. The other half may have thought it was just going to be in a small closet. But here we are, a year and a half and we have probably one of the largest esports programs in the country in its first inception.”
The university made an investment to renovate and rewire the Pilot House to turn it into an esports arena, equipping it with gaming stations, including TVs and computer monitors hooked up to consoles and with gaming chairs emblazoned with the Triton esports logo.
Zhang signed on to serve as the program’s inaugural coach last spring and has overseen many of the details needed to launch the program.
The biggest task was holding tryouts to assemble the new roster, but that also proved the most rewarding part of the experience.
“As a first-year program, you never think that anybody’s interested, but doing it and showcasing it, it was a great initiative,” Zhang said. “A lot of students were engaging, a lot of people were interested, so we were able to get a really good showing here.”
TRITON ESPORTS VARSITY ROSTER
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Joseph Lee, junior, criminology and criminal justice
Adrian Kempf Gray, sophomore, business administration
Joshua Culley, freshman, computer technology
Michel Brun, graduate, communication
League of Legends
Nhat Minh Pham, freshman, computer science
Joseph Hornberger, freshman, mechanical engineering
Meta Karagoz, freshman, computer science
Conor Ryan, freshman, civil engineering
Gabriel McGuiggan, sophomore, modern language
Max Venker, freshman, cybersecurity
Theodore Saigh, junior, interior design
Bobby Hatchett, freshman, mechanical engineering
Xing Chen, sophomore, accounting
Jamerius Johns, sophomore, biochemistry and biotechnology
Patrick Ferris, senior, psychology
Damian Lopez, freshman, cybersecurity
Joe Schneider, sophomore, economics
Thomas Thach, freshman, information systems and technology
Evan Bui, freshman, engineering
Faruq Sowemimo, senior, computer technology
Robert Stevson, senior, civil engineering