“Right, right, right!”
The words are barked out as the team of four soldiers maneuver through the small village. Enemy soldiers are everywhere, and they’re all trying to kill the team. In some cases, they succeed.
The World War II skirmish is taking place in the virtual world of “Call of Duty.” Deaths are temporary, but the four-man team led by Ryan “Slim” Johnson takes the game seriously. Each is a student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, so the esports honor of the school is at stake.
Johnson, a rising senior majoring in finance, was named one of the country’s Top 10 Returning College “Call of Duty” players by eFuse, a website that follows collegiate esports teams. Before the 17-game season began in January, the UTC team was ranked 22nd in the Top 25 picked by the National Association of Collegiate Esports, the largest collegiate esports league in North America.
In both cases, Johnson was credited.
“The reason I find his presence so impactful is because he single-handedly carried this team to multiple wins. I’ve watched this team compete and they have great potential,” wrote eFuse columnist Houssam “Sam” A. I Pali, assistant esports coach at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.
Johnson, who said he’s been playing video games since about 2007—“Oh, wow,” he murmurs after figuring out the timeline—shrugs at the honor, saying it’s a team effort.
He put the UTC team together in 2021. Except for Johnson, all four players on the 2022 team were new.
Selecting team members is not just a case of someone approaching Johnson and saying, “Hey, I want to play.”
“Obviously, gun skill is very, very important. If they can shoot, well, that’s a big thing,” he explained.
Personality also is critical.
“You don’t want someone that’s like super cocky and arrogant. It’s still a team game at the end of the day.”
The team all wear headsets with wraparound microphones. The ability to communicate—very quickly—is critical, Johnson said.
“In ‘Call of Duty,’ everything’s happening rapidly, so you’re running and dying, and you’re constantly telling your teammates where people are, what’s happening on the map and everything. Communication’s a really big thing.”
The 2022 team—Johnson, Chase “Red Chase” Daffron, Zach “Cliq” Moses, Alex “Superior” Davis—all are “Call of Duty” experts. During play, their coordinated movements are nearly impossible to follow as they dash up stairs, climb ladders, jump out windows and fire weapons almost nonstop.
In a game, conversation is a barked series of phrases that may be difficult to decipher for anyone not well-versed in “Call of Duty” lingo. Among them:
“He’s weak.” An enemy has only a little bit of life left. Easy kill.
“One shot.” Enemy needs only one bullet to be killed.
“I died so quick.” Self-explanatory.
Campus competition: Esports take off
Esports—competitive electronic gaming—has exploded across college campuses nationwide in the last 10 years, including at UTC.
According to the National Association of Collegiate Esports, the largest collegiate esports league in the country, 175 colleges or universities now have teams.
There are seasons, championship tournaments, bragging rights.
There are Top 25 rankings for both teams and players.
Cindy Strine, director of recreation at UTC, said COVID-19 sent esports interest rocketing on campus.
“The gaming culture exploded and moved to the forefront during COVID,” she said. “As we looked for ways to keep students engaged, the esports program expanded.
“Last spring our students started playing in the college ‘Call of Duty’ league and quickly recruited talented players online to come to UTC,” she continued. “Our gaming community continues to build. The gaming and esports culture has been driven by student interest and student engagement.”
For students at some universities, esports even offers a way to help pay tuition in the form of scholarships. Ohio State University, Kent State University, the University of Texas Arlington and the University of California Irvine all have esports scholarships. At this time, UTC doesn’t.
Daffron, a rising UTC senior in computer science and a member of the University’s “Call of Duty” team, had a $6,000 per year esports scholarship to Concord University in West Virginia. Born and raised in West Tennessee, he transferred to UTC in 2021, explaining that $6,000 doesn’t go far when out-of-state tuition plus housing and meal plans add up to more than $27,000 each year.
Moses, a rising sophomore on the UTC team, received a $3,000 a year esports scholarship at Tennessee Wesleyan University before transferring to UTC. The Wesleyan team was brand-new and just wasn’t very good, he said.
Esports are a recruiting tool, too, Strine said.
“They have toured students through our gaming areas,” she said. “For serious gamers and casual gamers, it is a platform in which they can connect to others easily on campus.”
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Esports teams at UTC during the 2021-2022 academic year
“Call of Duty” (varsity and academy teams)
“League of Legends”
This is an updated version of a story that first appeared in the spring 2022 issue of The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Magazine.