From football to the FGC, the University of Texas at Austin has made its name in esports and traditional sports alike. Longhorn Gaming, originally named the Texas E-Sports Association (TeSPA), was formed in 2010 by a couple of StarCraft II fans. This organization would go on to host LANs, tournaments, and other events online and around Texas, building up enough of a national following to be recognized by Blizzard Entertainment, the creators of StarCraft. TeSPA and its founders would then be acquired by Blizzard, re-branding into what it's known as today, and would go on to host official events such as Heroes of the Dorm, a television broadcast Heroes of the Storm tournament. Longhorn Gaming would form shortly after.
I was able to ask members of Longhorn Gaming a few questions about the organization, the teams they work with, and what plans they have for the future.
Note: The interviews in this article have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Longhorn Gaming Club Members at Riot Night (Credit: Longhorn Gaming Facebook)
President of Longhorn Gaming, Austin “AceEspy” Espinoza, first joined the organization as a freshman back in 2015. Eager to help out in any way possible, he would reply to floods of emails and messages on social media, even going so far as to design digital and physical marketing materials to spread awareness about Longhorn Gaming’s new branding. However, his main interest was in video content creation. He eventually started a creative team where he mainly focused on building a professional YouTube channel.
“I will always remember my time as creative director because of the amount of raw effort I put in attempting to tell the stories of our players, and our League of Legends team, which at the time was top 10 in the country. Filming and editing our YouTube series, LG Legends, made for an incredible learning experience that has put us back in the spotlight. I am now powering through my first semester as the president of Longhorn Gaming, and it has been the most meaningful semester yet.”
His focus, however, isn’t just on powering through this semester. He says that Longhorn Gaming is currently working to take UT Austin’s esports program further than others in the country, even trying to give students the opportunity to develop themselves professionally within the growing ecosystem around esports.
Two prominent members of UT Austin’s Fighting Game Community (FGC) are: Ankur “Tilt” Kaushik and Alberto "EPAY" Carranco. Coach and president of Longhorn Smash, Ankur, joined at the bottom level, eventually working his way up to become president of the club.
“I started out by being very involved in events and tournaments that the club ran, eventually working my way up to become president. As for how I became a coach, I really wanted to find a way to help our players get better at the game and succeed at collegiate Smash. I’ve coached the team at CSL every year since 2017. Since then, we’ve gone from going 0-2 at our first event to consistently placing top 2 at tournaments within the state.”
Alberto, FGC administrator and manager of UT Austin’s Street Fighter V team, originally joined Longhorn Gaming after he noticed that the “traditional” fighting game scene around UT Austin was lacking and looked to build it up himself.
"[...] I tried building up [the Street Fighter V scene] around UT Austin myself. The only Discord had very few people in it, so I started inviting those who played the game casually and, in the span of a year, it was pretty clear that a competitive environment was needed. By the end of last year, members started to attend tournaments for the first time, and by the beginning of this year, tournament attendance has doubled."
Both have high aspirations for the FGC around UT Austin. Ankur states that he hopes Longhorn Gaming’s Smash team places within the top 4 this year. Alberto looks to push the Street Fighter V team as far as it will go, hoping to make divisionals if given the chance. As for their own futures, both state that if an opportunity became available, they would pursue managerial roles in professional esports.
Chris "XRDBlade" Malilay, president of Longhorn Gaming’s Rocket League team, joined as a player after a friend told him about the growing competitive scene on campus. Rocket League itself was just turning two at the time and the Collegiate Carball Association was only a few months old.
Eventually, Psyonix, the developer of Rocket League, would take an interest in the collegiate scene, hosting the first Collegiate Rocket League (CRL) season in the fall of 2017, a tournament Chris competed in alongside Jack "jawewe" Weakley, JohnAiden "Jakk" Uribe-Kozlovsky, Daniel "Daniel" Hauser, and David "Doodat" Du. The squad also competed in the AVGL Collegiate Series in 2018, earning the 1st seed after beating the University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Dallas during the round-robin phase. They would then go on to place second after losing to the University of North Texas in the grand finals.
“I actually wasn't looking to become the game head for Rocket League. Doodat, however, had selected me to take over as he was graduating. While I still had the competitive drive, I decided I would be perfectly happy taking a step back and monitor the team's success. We qualified and participated in CRL Season 2 and 3, but with an increasingly more competitive collegiate scene, placed 9th-10th and 9th-16th respectively. We were a series away from qualifying for CRL Season 4, but lost to Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo).”
Chris talked more about the ecosystem around Collegiate Rocket League and how the level of competition has quickly risen since he first started playing as a Freshman.
“The game is constantly moving forward and players have been improving at a rapid pace since the early ages of the collegiate scene. Maybe we can get a little lucky someday and manage to get a high level player to come to UT Austin, but I've always been extremely happy and impressed with our results as a team regardless of the outcome. Rocket League is such a volatile game, anything can happen. We have a lot of talent here, and have still remained competitive with the best teams for close to 3 years in a blooming ecosystem. I've seen significant leaps in skill with this generation of players and I'm optimistic Longhorn Gaming’s Rocket League team will stay top 24 in the western conference and eventually requalify for the CRL and surpass expectations as freshman start filling in when we graduate.”
While he’s not personally looking for a position in professional esports post-graduation, if an opportunity came along, he’d definitely take an interest. When asked about the future of esports at UT Austin, Chris shares that he hopes future generations of players will have more scholarship opportunities.
“[...] I could see UT Austin eventually offering scholarship money to represent the school some years down the line. Longhorn Gaming having the support of [UT Austin] would also lead to more influence towards students being able to land jobs in the professional esports scene, which is a big bonus.”
A new face on the Longhorn Gaming Dota 2 team, Thac Dang, also known as Mime or Meo, joined the squad as a player last season. However, they moved to the position of team manager this semester due to having a packed schedule. Thac shares that their goal for the team this season is to place within the top 10.
“It’s difficult since we’re facing stiff competition and we haven’t played as a team for long, but I think we have what it takes to overcome these obstacles.”
Swapping to a managerial role isn’t something Thac laments. If the opportunity to manage a professional esports team presents itself, it would be a career they’d pursue.
Shawn Xu, also known as “Skips,” is the team captain of Longhorn Gaming’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (or CSGO) team. Before college, he had only played casually. However, after seeing one of his roommates play CSGO’s competitive matchmaking, it inspired him to get into the competitive scene around the game. At the start of his sophomore year, he messaged Kevin “KevinWow” Guo, the team captain at the time, on Facebook asking for a tryout. Shawn was given a tryout and made it onto the Junior Varsity roster for the 2017-2018 season of CSL.
His first season didn’t yield amazing results, placing 18th-22nd place. Next season, he would make it onto the varsity team and attend two LANs in Dallas. The team would place 5th and 4th respectively. His team would then go on to a 9-2 regular season in the CSL, taking home $600. This year Shawn took over the team captain role due to KevinWow graduating. Shawn now hopes to take the team higher than before, sharing that he thinks the roster this year is the strongest he’s ever played on.
“[...] most of us have either played on or are currently playing on an ESEA Main team, and I think we have a real shot at making it happen. We have some players with a great deal of mechanical skill, but I think the key is to refine the teamwork and decision-making aspects of our players and the team as a whole. I think in previous years, this has been an area that we have been lacking in.”
When on the subject of playing professionally, he states that none of the players on the roster are currently trying to do that.
“The CS scene is old, large, and there are just too many 15 year olds who have been playing competitively since they could pick up a mouse. So it’s pretty hard to get into the pro scene, especially if you’ve only been playing since college or high school. Personally, I’ve considered going into the non-competitive side of esports, but it’s not something that’s a priority for me. I just enjoy the teamwork and competitive aspect of playing, not necessarily the team managing/tournament organizing component of it. Above all else, I’ve enjoyed making friends with my teammates and meeting other players around the country through collegiate Counter-Strike.”
Shawn also hopes to see collegiate Counter-Strike reach the level of collegiate football or baseball, expressing that he thinks Longhorn Gaming is doing a great job at trying to achieve that.
Having the dream to play for UT Austin’s League of Legends team since he was a child, Ahir “CrusherCake” Chatterjee, tried out for the team as soon as he was of age. Unfortunately, he was put on the secondary team’s roster, something that was very disappointing at the time. However, Ahir would make the best of a bad situation and become the secondary team’s coach and team manager. He had played the League of Legends, currently in its 10th season, since its 2nd. Because of this, he had the knowledge to help a team of competitively fresh players find a 6th place finish in last year’s season of CSL.
Having taken over the position of the manager on the primary team this year, he hopes to repeat the success of the past. A tall order for the new coach and manager as the primary team has made it to the playoffs of CLoL, a tournament hosted by Riot, the creator of League of Legends, every year since its inception. Ahir has high expectations for both teams, saying that he hopes the secondary team wins CSL this year as well.
“[...] I absolutely have high expectations for both of the teams this year because they are both full of exceptionally talented individuals, and I know that they can really take the competition to the highest level.”
When talking about the future of Longhorn Gaming’s current League of Legends roster, he says,
“Our players are all superbly talented, and I believe that some of them could play professionally if they aspired to do so. However, for many of us, that's a far off dream rather than a concrete goal. Instead, our players aim to pursue their love of League and competitive gaming through collegiate esports while focusing on developing a career in their major. [...] the common theme [among our players and staff] is that school comes first.”
As for his own future, he hopes that he can find a management position in a professional esports organization after college. Stating that it has always been a goal and, after seeing what it was like at a collegiate level, would love to push himself to make it to the professional level.
Longhorn Gaming Club Members (Credit: Longhorn Gaming Facebook)
As collegiate esports gain legitimacy around the country, we will begin to see systems put in place that give players, managers, and coaches the ability to hone their skills and prepare for roles in professional esports. But, whether you’re looking to work professionally, or just want to have fun on a team, Longhorn Gaming strives to build a community around UT Austin where any player is welcome, casual or competitive.