WT launches esports varsity squads

West Texas A&M University is plugging into a new way to recruit and retain students by greatly expanding its esports program. 

This fall, WT added a new coach to head its eight varsity-level squads and began offering scholarship opportunities for esports athletes.

“This is a highly competitive area that continues to grow, and we knew we needed a coach for them to lean on,” said Justin Cornelsen, director of recreational sports. “This will help keep the players organized, put them in a team environment and allow them structured practice times to develop their skills.”

Levi Zemanuel, who graduated from WT in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in finance and will graduate in December with a master’s of science in finance and economics, recently was hired as the team’s first coach. In addition to helping them hone their gaming skills, Zemanuel said he hopes to impart other lessons on his athletes, as well.

“I was in Rogers LEAD WT, one of the University’s most prestigious student leadership programs, and I still carry all of those ideals into this new role,” said Zemanuel, an Amarillo native. “I want to help our athletes improve in their studies and as people so that, when they leave WT, they make a difference in their communities.”

Esports, which is short for electronic sports, are video game competitions, frequently organized, multiplayer contests between individuals or teams. In the late 2000s, the popularity of esports grew enormously, as professional players competed in livestreamed matches that could be watched by fans around the world, often on YouTube or Twitch.

Though considered a nontraditional sport, players must develop skills in planning, timing and execution to be successful, Cornelsen said.

“We want to change the mindset of students gaming all night and instead emphasize academics and their mental health,” Cornelsen said.

Buff Gaming began in 2017 as a student-led organization, growing each year.

“We partnered with our students to build a gaming center in the Virgil Henson Activities Center, and in August 2020, some students began competing at varsity levels,” Cornelsen said.

Esports is considered a club sport at the University, similar to bowling, rodeo, trap and skeet shooting, and more.

Region 16 Educational Service Center is encouraging more Panhandle-area schools to start their own esports teams.

“Schools and universities have been trying to figure out how to integrate esports into instruction in the same way that UIL sports are integrated,” said Les Montgomery, Region 16 technology support manager. “Esports are a great way for our children to connect to the ever-increasing technology that shapes our world. Students in Region 16 are helping to design the future.”

With dedicated scholarship funding, Zemanuel and Cornelsen will actively recruit top esports athletes in Region 16 and elsewhere to attend WT.

At WT, esports athletes will have access to top-of-the-line equipment and a dedicated high-speed internet connection.

Teams have two-hour practice sessions twice a week. WT esports compete in tournaments for “Call of Duty,” “Rocket League,” “Overwatch,” “Valorant,” “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” “League of Legends,” “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” and “Rainbow Six Siege.” More teams can be formed if interest exists among students.

Vasalit Souvanna, a senior accounting major from Amarillo, is president of Buff Gaming and competes in “Valorant.”

“We are looking to create an environment where students succeed not just in front of their monitors but in all aspects of their University life,” Souvanna said. “Playing esports has taught me to win as part of a team, and that’s the mindset we want to see in all of our athletes.”

Varsity esports team members represent every College at WT.

Esports athletes include Adrian Boyles, freshman design and technology major from Decatur; Alex Norris, freshman computer science major from Levelland; Andrew Santiago, sophomore pre-engineering major from Amarillo; Avory Gonzales, freshman business major from Clovis, New Mexico; Bailey Heiller, freshman psychology major from Canyon; Barron Williams, junior computer science major from Plainview; Brandon Fenelon, sophomore computer science major from Plainview; Chris Lanham, freshman computer science major from Panhandle; Christian Tenorio, sophomore computer information systems major from Canyon; Christopher Bland, senior computer information systems major from Borger; Christopher Herrera, sophomore computer information systems major from Farwell; Cole Drummond, freshman mechanical engineering major from Amarillo; Damian Sandoval, freshman marketing major from Pampa; Emiliano Solis, freshman history education major from Brownfield; Emma Jo Miller, junior art education major from Berthoud, Colorado; Ethan Klein, sophomore accounting from Shallowater; Ethan Way, freshman geology major from Houston; and Evan Whatley, sophomore digital media and communication major from Boys Ranch.

The varsity squads also include Ian Blancas, sophomore computer science major from Hobbs, New Mexico; Isaac Castillo, senior sports and exercise science major from Plainview; Jacob Wiemers, freshman computer science major from Helotes; Jesus Alaniz, junior athletic training major from Roma; Jordan Unfred, graduate student in computer information sciences and business analytics from Lubbock; Kaleb Vaughn, freshman criminal justice major from Lubbock; Kyler Wilson, senior computer information systems major from Springtown; Luis Vega, freshman computer science major from Pampa; Luke Parrott, sophomore pre-engineering major from Canyon; Michael Peeples, senior computer information systems major from Lubbock; Nam Ma, freshman engineering major from Houston; Nathan West, freshman chemistry major from Amarillo; Nathaniel Murphy, sophomore criminal justice major from Rowlett; Niraj Bhakta, junior computer information systems major from Aspermont; Olivia Caballero, sophomore biology major from Amarillo; Ryder Lovelady, freshman criminal justice administration major from Amarillo; Sykora Guy, freshman computer science major from Pampa; Tyler Bowdry, senior computer information systems major from Corpus Christi; Will Hittson, sophomore computer information systems major from Des Moines, New Mexico; and Zane Allsup, freshman animal science major from Decatur.

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