Arizona Esports expands with launch of Esports Academy

Three students wearing green shirts stand in a group while smiling

Arizona Esports Rocket League team members Elijah Parent, Natalie Benton and Thomas Schlaerth. The Arizona Esports program recently launched the Esports Academy to foster greater involvement on campus and support gamers of all skill levels.

Chris Richards/University Communications

University of Arizona junior Christian Mireles scarcely remembers a time when he didn't enjoy playing video games. From Mario Kart to Super Smash Bros., he fondly recounts his early years on the Nintendo Wii – even going so far as to sneak in game time at night while his family slept.

"Even when I wasn't allowed to, late at night, I would still try to boot up Super Smash and the bright welcome screen would wake everyone up in the house," he said. "I used to get in trouble for that."

Mireles' childhood passion for gaming grew more intense as he grew older. By the time he was a student at Mountain View High School in Marana, that passion became a love of competitive video games like Overwatch – a science fiction first-person shooting game. In 2018, Mireles watched his first Overwatch League Grand Finals on ESPN and his jaw "was on the floor."

A man in a white polo shirt and glasses stands in front of desert plants

Arizona Esports Academy member Christian Mireles.

Arizona Esports

A whole world of possibilities opened before his eyes.

"Watching the highest level of professional play looked like art was happening right in front of me," Mireles said. "I realized I wanted to do this, to at least be in the esports industry."

After graduating from high school, Mireles took his passion for gaming with him when he enrolled at UArizona. Now, in addition to his studies in accounting, Mireles is a proud member of Arizona Esports, the university's official home for competitive videogaming.

Arizona Esports celebrated the start of the school year with the launch of the Esports Academy, an initiative intended to not only deepen the program's roster of student-athletes but expand its presence throughout the community.

Program with a plan

Ian Escalante, the director of Arizona Esports, said the academy is the next step in the long-term plan for the program. It allows Arizona Esports to meet the needs of not only those who make the final cut for one of the program's two teams, but anyone interested in joining, regardless of their skill level or history with competitive games.

"A lot of people love playing games, but maybe they haven't done it with other people or competitively, and people who play esports will tell you that it's a whole different game than just playing with your friends," Escalante said. "A lot of people fall in love with gaming that way, and so the academy is an opportunity for those who did not make our varsity teams to be in a protected environment and possibly be a teammate for the first time ever."

Competitive gaming at its highest level at Arizona Esports revolves around two games, Overwatch 2 and Rocket League. The Overwatch series includes team-based, multiplayer first-person shooting games with a variety of different competitive modes in which two teams of five players work against each other to complete map-specific objectives during a limited period of time. Rocket League is a soccer-style game in which up to eight players control teams of rocket-powered cars to push a ball around an arena toward one of two goals. Arizona Esports fields two coed teams, eight student-athletes play Overwatch 2 and six compete in Rocket League.

A man wearing headphones and a red shirt that says "Shmurda" on the back plays computer games.

Arizona Esports student-athlete Saul Murillo Morales plays Overwatch 2 against University of Minnesota, Twin Cities on Sept. 12.

Chris Richards/University Communications

Like its traditional athletic counterparts, Arizona Esports hosts tryouts for its prospective student-athletes every year – in this case to fill 14 spots in the program's final roster. With the introduction of the Esports Academy, those who do not make the cut have the opportunity to not only remain within the program but grow and develop their skills among peers.

Students who don't make the final roster are introduced to one another so they can better understand their respective skill sets and interests, and Escalante helps the students form teams and develop a practice schedule if assistance is needed.

There are currently six Arizona Esports Academy teams: one each playing Overwatch 2 and Rocket League, one playing Nintendo's long-running fighting game, Super Smash Bros., a team playing League of Legends, an action-strategy game, and two playing Valorant, a team-based first-person shooter.

For student athletes such as Mireles, the introduction of the Esports Academy was the perfect opportunity to stay involved in a program he has grown to love. After three semesters playing for the Overwatch team, Mireles felt like he would be a better fit to help foster the skills of people who are passionate but may not have competitive experience.

"I have been with the program since day one, and when I realized that varsity would not be an option this semester, I did not want to leave the program," Mireles said. "When the opportunity arose for academy teams, I figured it would be a great opportunity to have fun and enjoy the team aspect of varsity without the rigor that comes with it. With the academy teams, it's a lot less strenuous and a lot more accessible to those who are passionate about games."

How the season sets up

Arizona Esports' two varsity teams compete in a seven-to-ten-week season over the school year, which leads to regional and national championships such as the Collegiate Esports Commissioners Cup. Over the course of that season, each team practices several times each week, scrimmages with other teams, reviews videotape and sets goals for the future. Academy teams face off against one another in a much less competitive environment that calls for only one practice per week, and team goals can be individualized to fit the goals of members.

But what defines success for Arizona Esports? For Escalante, it comes down to more than just wins and losses. He wants to know who is willing to not only put in effort at practice but also uplift others and foster a respectful, inclusive environment.

"Rank doesn't matter to me if you can't be a good student and a good teammate, if you can't show up to practice or if you're harassing other people and not helping them grow," Escalante said.

A man in a red shirt looks towards the camera while frowning

Arizona Esports student-athlete and Rocket League team member Thomas Schlaerth.

Chris Richards/University Communications

Natalie Benton and Thomas Schlaerth play for the program's main Rocket League team.

A lifelong gamer, Benton said she started following competitive video game culture in high school and jumped at the chance to be a member of Arizona Esports. Now more than a year into her tenure with the program, the studio arts major said she has made lifelong friends.

"I love playing Rocket League, but I also get to meet all of these wonderful people who are really, really good at the game and really driven," Benton said. "It's become my social circle. The program is also very inclusive. Even having a spot on this team is not the norm for university programs that do esports because there isn't any inclusivity or diversity mandate. It feels very nice to meet not only cool guys but cool girls."

Schlaerth said the emphasis on inclusivity was a factor when he decided to join the Arizona Esports program in 2021. After spending some time playing for unaffiliated club teams on campus, Schlaerth said he knew he had found his home in the program.

"If you can embrace our culture, the only way is up," he said. "There is only success. You can get better individually, but ultimately, it's a team. You need to help your teammates get better, too."

In addition to fighting virtual battles, Arizona Esports athletes – and students of any major – can also integrate video games into their academic journeys through the School of Information. The college offers undergraduate degree programs in information science, game design and behavior, as well as esports-specific sources. Students can currently enroll in Esports Broadcasting and Development and will next year be able to take a course in esports team development.

Mireles was first introduced to broadcasting esports through the class and is busy learning the behind-the-scenes work necessary to host the broadcast of a competitive video game match to potentially millions of viewers around the world. Now he sees broadcasting as a potential career.

This year's Arizona Esports teams made their first public appearance at the Tucson Comic Con and started the season Sept. 11. Both teams broadcast their matches on the program's official Twitch page.