The University of Southern Mississippi’s Eagle Esports program made history last week when two of its teams made it to the National Esports Collegiate Conference (NECC) playoff tournaments.
Team ‘Rocket League’ and Team ‘Overwatch’s’ playoffs mark the first postseason appearances anyone has made in the program’s history.
“This is our first semester of competitively playing and to have two of our teams make the playoffs, we’re thrilled,” Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Denny Bubrig said. “We’re beyond ecstatic for the progress that they have made, but that also comes with a recognition that we still have a lot of things to do and a long way to go.”
While Team ‘Rocket League’ lost 3-0 in its first-round matchup against Missouri Baptist University, Team ‘Overwatch’ advanced to the semifinals with a win against the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Team ‘Overwatch’ won the first two games, but dropped the next two. The team then broke the tie with a victory in the fifth game. Senior computer engineering major Jacob Cooper earned the MVP for the match.
Cooper said the team felt relieved to win, but knew they could improve from the match.
“Being the first playoff game, there was definitely more pressure than usual and our [scrimmages] were a little messy but we came through and ended up doing better than we thought we were going to at first and ended up winning it,” Cooper said. “We have the mindset that we’re going to go all the way[,] so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Team “Overwatch’s” ambitions reflect the progress that Eagle Esports has made in its first year of competitive play in the NECC. Eagle Esports, established in 2019, currently has five teams that each compete in five different games. These teams, playing popular titles like ‘Rainbow Six’, ‘Overwatch’, ‘Rocket League’, ‘Call of Duty’ and ‘League of Legends’, compete in a series of unique tournaments against players all across the country.
Both Team ‘Rocket League’ and Team ‘Overwatch’ are led by player-coaches who have split the responsibilities of playing and coaching during a year facing challenges of COVID-19. In October, Jonathan Haigh, junior information technology major and Team ‘Rocket League’ player-coach, said that his team could not meet each other due to COVID-19 restrictions, which presented difficulties in building team chemistry for their new roster.
However, this semester, the teams were finally able to utilize “The Arena”, the newly created Eagle Esports’ headquarters, located inside the R.C. Cook University Union.
Sophomore computer science major Samuel Stackler, who is the coach of Team ‘Overwatch’, said that making operations in person allowed him to meet teammates for the first time, which created chances for the team to improve.
When Team ‘Overwatch’ competed in the fall, Stackler said he was worried about how his team would fare during the NECC’s nine-game season. Despite his early worries, however, the team finished with a 6-3 record, earning the fifth seed in the tournament.
Stackler said he believes his team can win the upcoming tournament, and noted how close competition is between the league’s top teams.
“The difference between the one and five [seeds] is minuscule,” Stackler said. “It’s very competitive up there. We’re the fifth seed, but it’s not like we’re the fifth-best team. It’s still very up in the air.”
Bubrig said there are several rewards at stake for winning the NECC championship, which includes gear, gaming packages and, of course, a championship trophy.
Regardless of the tournament’s outcome, though, the program’s early success will help shape its future as a force in the collegiate esports landscape.
“Just in one year, we have gone from being the one to solicit recruits […to now having] recruits starting to reach out to us everywhere from Oregon to North Carolina to even Las Vegas [Nevada],” Bubrig said.
With a deep playoff run in the NECC tournament, Eagle Esports could add to its recruiting strength and prestige almost immediately.
“I think it definitely helps, but I think it validates that we’re for real,” Bubrig said. “We’re here to try and compete. This isn’t a pipe dream. We’re working towards more […and] this is just a start.”
Team ‘Overwatch’ will play next against No. 1 seed California State University, Dominguez Hills on April 24.
“We’re going to practice more than we usually do,” Cooper said. “Sam [Stackler] told us to make sure that we’re playing a lot more Overwatch this week. […] We’re all in it and we’re ready to see what we can do against them.”