HOUSTON -- Behind the Collegiate Esports Championship stage, University of Utah esports director AJ Dimick rallied his Overwatch team. The Utes were fresh off a 3-0 sweep of Orange Coast College on Saturday and had earned a spot in Sunday's final.
"I'm so grateful for all the work you've done to be here," Dimick told his players. "What an opportunity to win a national championship, and every day is a good day to be a Ute."
His voice escalated into a deep-toned scream above the noise from the stage and backstage chatter from other teams.
"But some days are better than others. This is a good day to be a Ute. Utes on three. One! Two! Three!"
It was a scene from traditional sports: a huddle with all hands in the center, a videographer capturing everything with a boom mic above the group and the director in the center, giving a rousing speech after a victory. It was a moment that could show doubters or those confused by the collegiate esports scene just how much crossover there is between this world and theirs.
Esports players in five different games from colleges and universities of varying sizes, enrollment and programs traveled to Houston this weekend for the CEC. The Overwatch quarterfinals alone had representatives from some of the premier esports programs in the U.S., from Maryville University (St. Louis) to smaller clubs such as Orange Coast College (Costa Mesa, California), which was founded by a group of six players who met on campus.
The second team to qualify for Sunday's grand final, Utah, is in a unique position compared to their peers. As the first-ever varsity esports program from a Power 5 conference, part of the Utes' challenge is proving that esports is worth investing time, money and resources into.
Utah will face Harrisburg University on Sunday at 11:20 a.m. ET on the ESPN Esports Twitch channel. Despite having a strong esports program full of passionate supporters within and around the program itself such as Dimick, as well as multiple tournament appearances in Overwatch and other titles, garnering that support remains difficult.
"We're trying to get our own individuality and break out, that esports is an actual thing in the collegiate scene, so that's always hard to do, especially at a Pac-12 school where it's all about sports, sports, sports," Utes flex DPS player Colby "Enspyr" Smith said. "We have to prove that this is, one, monetarily sound. It's a billion-dollar industry, and that's all people care about. They could give no s---s if it's fun to watch or if it's cool; people follow money. This is a great way to prove that there's money invested in this."
When most sports fans think of the Utes, their minds go to what the program has accomplished in football. Utah can boast about a few big bowl victories over the past 10 years, including a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in 2009. Although Utah made waves when it announced its scholarship-sponsored esports program in April 2017, including an appearance on SportsCenter by Dimick, there are bigger teams on campus.
"We have a huge football team, a huge football stadium -- we're Pac-12," support Konrad "Captainbabe" Serbinowski said. "I think from our athletic department there's a lot of questions of, 'Why invest in Overwatch, in esports, when we can just put more money into football, which is already, like, such a huge success?'
"There's some pushback, but we're here showing that it's worth it and showing that we're good at this, and with the right support, we can consistently be good at this."
Standing in the Utes' way are the Harrisburg University Storm. Harrisburg has one of the strongest teams at the tournament, and the Storm carry momentum from an emotional 3-2 victory against tournament favorite Maryville into Sunday's matchup.
As the team's flex player and captain, Austin "CoolABC" Walch will be a key factor in a potential Utes victory. A win would mean plenty for the team but perhaps just as much for its footprint on campus.
"Everybody plays every hero here. I'll play any role, anything. I don't get a role. Broken heroes in my role," CoolABC said with a laugh. "They are very flexible just like us, so it's going to be a fun match to see if they can beat us."
CoolABC cites his team's flexibility as its greatest strength, and he has confidence that the Utes can adjust in-game to Harrisburg's Pharah and Mercy combinations with Sombra.
"Everyone plays against GOATS or triple DPS. Nobody plays against the bunker Bastion-Mei comp on every point, every map, no matter what," CoolABC said. "We have scrims canceled on us constantly this spring because they don't want to play that. They're like, 'This is useless, no one's going to play this.' So no one practices against what we do."