After shutting down his BlackBoard Collaborate browser, freshman computer science major Ian Wagner quickly put on his game face. He joined Brian Stout, computer science, and their team captain David Paton, mechanical engineering, and substitute Tanner Mohn, computer science, on the UMBC Rocket League Discord server. It was a mere 10 minutes before the team was to play one in the first round of the America East Soccar Qualifier. Wagner, Stout, and Paton quickly collected themselves and threw themselves into the game.
Rocket League is a video game similar to soccer, except three-player teams drive around as cars trying to score goals, explains the team. The game is played inside an enclosed area with a bubbled ceiling, so, unlike soccer, there are no out-of-bounds. eSports like Rocket League are relatively new to the America East conference. Before the America East Soccar Qualifier, the conference had only hosted two other eSports tournaments in Super Smash Bros.
While eSports is new to the America East, they are not to UMBC. Stout, Wagner, and Paton have been playing Rocket League since the game first came out in 2015 and have been playing as a team since last summer. It was their team’s chemistry that allowed them to defeat New Jersey Institute of Technology, then beat the University of Massachusetts-Lowell despite the somewhat hectic start to their match. In the semi-finals, UMBC beat Hartford University 3-0 and won the qualifier, beating longtime athletics rival Stony Brook University 3-1 in February 2020.
“I was impressed with how we pulled it off,” Wagner said. “We watched our replays and played a couple of matches and really talked about our game plan, and I think that led us to a pretty one-sided victory against Stony Brook.”
Congratulations are in order
The retweets from the America East and UMBC Athletics Twitter accounts felt really validating to the team. Since eSports has yet to become a mainstay of collegiate athletics, these eSports student-athletes say that the acknowledgment of their success makes them hopeful for support in future tournaments.
“We got the school’s attention, which somewhat legitimizes what we’re doing,” said Stout. “It puts all these eyes on the sport,” added Wagner.
Some of the Rocket League team’s hopes for more investment in eSports by UMBC are already underway. Assistant Director of Club Sports Kristen Alexander said that the RAC update plans include a room dedicated to UMBC’s eSports teams.
Alexander expects the university to continue supporting the Rocket League team as they pursue other tournament wins. “When any student shows passion in something, you want to help grow that passion as much as you can,” said Alexander.
“Playing eSports on the national level gets the UMBC name out there across the nation,” she added. “I don’t think it matters what sport it needs to be, as long as it’s a positive light and showing that UMBC is competitive in all facets, whether that even be in chess, men’s lacrosse, or eSports.”
Building off luck
Winning the America East qualifier sent the team to the Collegiate eSports Invitational National Rocket League Tournament, where they played California Polytechnic State University, one of the best lower-seeded teams in the tournament. Despite losing to Cal Poly, the team believes this tournament was a step in making UMBC a Rocket League and eSports school.
“It’s an oddity to meet up at a smaller school, have three players that are all at the same level, that all have pop-off potential and that all can raise each other’s level at the same time,” said Paton, a junior. “To have that kind of team, we’re really fortunate.”
The team feels they can build off their luck of finding each other to train up other players who will replace them when they graduate. Since the tournament, 10 people have joined the UMBC Rocket League Discord server and—with a little help from UMBC itself—Paton, Wagner, Stout, and Mohn believe they can grow even more.
UMBC is already known as a nerdy school, a fact emphasized by the 2018 UMBC men’s basketball team doing Fortnite dances on the sidelines of their historic game against the University of Virginia. The Rocket League team feels eSports could become another UMBC athletic claim to fame.
“In the next year or two, eSports are going to be pretty prevalent because we’re one of the only sports that have been playing,” said Stout. “It’s one of those things you can play rain or shine, doesn’t matter. So, I think it’s a good thing to invest in.”