Women lead charge at Central Florida’s esports program

Despite obstacles, Gaming Knights duo has helped one of nation’s biggest universities embrace this rising sport.
By: | March 16, 2020
Unviersity of Central Florida esports leaders Annabel Zinn and Audrey Luce. (LRP Media Group photo/Chris Burt)

“Esports means everything to me.” – Audrey Luce, University of Central Florida Gaming Knights president

Those words are heartfelt and hard to ignore. They echo the sentiments of scores of competitive college video game players across the country.

Although many administrators at higher education institutions have listened to these students-athletes and embraced esports, others still have a lot of questions, namely … What should we do with esports?

For more than a decade at the University of Central Florida, the answer was simple: nothing. Starting in 2002, esports operated largely underground as a gathering of hardcore gamers. Even after it formed officially in 2013, students on the 1,400-acre Orlando campus still played competitively from their dorm rooms or apartments or gathered for events offsite. Many still do.

Although most of the barriers have come down that allow esports athletes to compete under the UCF banner, one big obstacle still exists: There is no dedicated space on campus for the team to play.

That is not unusual. Nationwide, schools not only are scrambling to find room on campus for this popular activity, but some are still trying to figure out exactly what that activity is. Esports? Video Games? At School? Is it a sport … or not?

Two astute, game-loving student leaders at UCF – Luce and Annabel Zinn – would emphatically say ‘yes’. They are part of a group of emboldened campus pioneers determined to take esports and their Gaming Knights to the next level.

So far, so good. Last year, UCF officially named esports as one of its 43 Sport Clubs that operate under the school’s Recreation and Wellness Center (so do non-varsity sports lacrosse, swimming, tennis, rugby and wrestling).  The Gaming Knights also secured a new place to compete as the result of a partnership with a local gaming center called Digital Battlegrounds.

But to get there, students must travel 20 minutes or more to Orlando’s Fashion Square Mall. It’s wild to think that a campus that expansive – with a 45,000-seat football stadium and 10,000-seat arena – can’t accommodate a 200-member club in an oversized classroom. But UCF, which has 68,000-plus students and is one of the largest public universities in the country, has almost no available space in its buildings.

That massive, complex landscape can overshadow a club such as esports. It can go virtually unnoticed, despite its popularity. But student interest in gaming, combined with inherent benefits, such as team-building, inclusion, curriculum application and pathways to jobs, may soon change that.

“There’s a lot of interest in esports,” says Zinn, the school’s esports director. “People still don’t know how to find us, but we’re trying to take advantage of our status as a Sport Club to really reach out to them and let them know.”

With a mission to put esports on the map at UCF, these two women are leveraging their vision, their passion for competitive gaming and at key times, their diplomacy, to make it happen. They haven’t been afraid to jump into an often-male dominated arena, lead, and win at the highest level. In their view, anything’s possible.

Forging a path through esports

Luce and Zinn both got their start in video games by challenging their dads to duels as young girls. Zinn played “everything with him,” from Lego Star Wars to Kirby on GameCube. Like Zinn, Luce battled every chance she could get, even in first-person shooter games such as Halo (despite her mom’s pleas).  Heading to college, they both had ambitions of following traditional career paths. But esports changed that.

“I applied to a bunch of schools thinking I was going to be a lawyer or doctor,” Luce says. “And then seeing my dad come home from his job where it just wasn’t fun, I decided I was going to do game design, because I love games. Esports means everything to me. I compete regularly with all these people from the entire country. I go to DreamHack twice a year just so I can see those people because they are my friends.”

Zinn loved gaming so much she changed her major. The National Merit Scholar who entered UCF on a double major path – biomed and electrical engineering – decided to pivot to Radio/TV.

“I realized that it wasn’t for me; I love academics, but I really wanted to follow something that I loved,” says Zinn, who is as an intramural supervisor for UCF’s esports leagues. “For me to change from engineering was a bit of a shock. My dad works at Lockheed-Martin. My mom always expected for me to be an engineer. I went to magnet school for engineering. Now I want to go into management or event production. Because there’s no major here, specifically, I had to explain to my parents that my job is going to come through extracurriculars. They were a little concerned, but once they saw how much I cared about this program and how successful it will be, they were comfortable with it.

“Now I’m so happy that I get to do these things. I get to network and talk to other people who love esports.”

UCF leaders in innovation … and esports, too

For three years running, the University of Central Florida has ranked in the top 20 most innovative schools, according to U.S. News & World Report. There are banners hanging from light poles all over campus, proudly proclaiming the feat. Its light-brick-and-glass facilities are strikingly modern, adorned with gold lettering. Its programs, both in the classrooms and off campus are world-class.

Its athletic teams perennially compete for titles in the American Athletic Conference, and its football team has become a national power against all odds.

So, where does esports fit in?

Unlike the Big East Conference, ECAC and other smaller leagues, the AAC has not embraced esports. So, at UCF, like it or not, esports now falls under Sport Clubs. That took a while to happen, but once was announced last year, Luce said, “it was amazing.”

The club conducts business out of UCF’s Recreation and Wellness Center, a modern 150,000-square foot structure that features among other things – rows of treadmills, a two-level indoor track, a custom climbing wall, and table tennis and sand volleyball courts. There are several small classrooms, but no room for esports.

In addition to trekking downtown to practice, the Knights have hopped to nearby Full Sail University for events. Full Sail not only boasts one of the largest esports campus arenas in the country (called The Fortress) but also has a separate room for esports practices.

“We’d love to have, not necessarily an arena on campus, but a space on campus, a dedicated practice space,” says Andrea Snead, Assistant Director of UCF’s Sport Clubs, Inclusive Recreation and Risk Management. “The first thing everyone wants to do is just build something on campus first. But for me, [Full Sail] having a dedicated space on campus for practice that is solely for club members, that is actually my goal because I think that’s more beneficial than just an arena.”

Snead has been keeping a close eye on esports, both on campus and at home, as its popularity reaches a fever pitch among both K-12 and higher education students.

“I’ll come home and one of my kids is literally sitting and watching someone else play video games,” Snead says. “For me personally, this is not very interesting, but I have to have a pulse with what’s going on with students. This is something they enjoy doing. It is also something that has growth from a competitive aspect.”

With a solid, fervent base of members, the sky should be the limit for esports at UCF. But its growth has been somewhat stunted by a few roadblocks, including the perception of competitive video gaming.

Embracing esports … or not

Is esports really a sport?

That has been a touchy subject on UCF’s campus, one that served to divide – at least in terms of athletics vs. club – the campus gamers from “traditional” sports athletes.

Each side has offered its own arguments and merits, but one thing is clear, according to Luce and Zinn – highly competitive gaming is not a sedentary activity. It requires deft hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, intense focus, stamina, intelligence, and collaboration. Many professional athletes have said it’s as competitive as the sports they play. Agree or disagree, there is massive interest in video games: esports is one of the fastest-growing businesses in the world. Some 2.2 billion people on the planet consider themselves gamers.

UCF’s teams compete in seven titles: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS: GO), Hearthstone, Overwatch, Rainbow Six, Rocket League, League of Legends and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). Other than card-playing Hearthstone and slower-paced Rocket League, these games push players’ bodies and minds to the limit with exhaustive, half-hour game play and no breaks.

Luce, herself a PUBG competitive athlete, views esports this way:

“It’s the same amount of studying and preparation, a lot more than maybe most other sports, and, it can be physical at times. Endurance is a big factor. I look at how many hours I’ve been putting into my game each week, and I can easily be doing 40 hours a week playing. It’s almost the same time as if someone just went to the field and started kicking a soccer ball. I probably consider my reaction time to be better than some of those players. Traditional sports are a bit more physical, and esports is a bit more mental. That’s the only difference.”

Zinn doesn’t compete but keeps a close watch over the program and says gamers and coaches should be lauded for their athletic abilities, skills, and dedication.

“I know my players, and even Audrey, they all put in so much time on top of being a college student, on top of being a club officer or being involved in what they care about,” she says. “They put in the time to do scrims [scrimmages]. They find scrims themselves. They do all this stuff so that they can compete and represent their university.”

Fighting for recognition

On a campus loaded with innovation, one of its unique features is that a female duo is leading the charge in esports at the university level. Although women comprise nearly half of those who play video games in some form globally, that number dwindles significantly when it comes to competing in esports.

“We ended up doing a survey to just try to figure out how many females vs. males there were in the program,” Luce said. “There were less people filling out the survey than I was hoping for, but it was still a good number. There were almost no females.”

But Zinn quickly notes, on UCF’s esports officer board, “we have more females than we do males.”

Yet, some stereotypes exist. Both say they have seen or heard criticism from male gamers toward other female gamers at times during play, and Luce admits she has been an occasional target of barbs when playing recreationally.

“In PUBG, there are only two completely female teams. I am a sub for one of them and I asked the other players: ‘why don’t you just go play with the other guys?’ Honestly, it’s because whenever they do, somehow the guys just aren’t as responsive. They don’t listen to the females as much. I don’t even know if the guys mean to, but sometimes it happens. It’s not everyone. The females just don’t feel welcomed.”

Those who are critical might want to be more welcoming. Female esports fans are as committed to the men, according to a study done by advertising agency Momentum Worldwide, spending 15 hours per week either watching or playing esports. And Luce adds, “In PUBG, the female team would kill a male team. But even during the chat of the games, they’ll say, ‘Oh man, I got killed by the girl team.’ ”

One caveat for Luce at UCF is that she started the PUBG program, “so, I was immediately in charge of it as a female. I didn’t have to join. I always had that leadership position.”

One of the big benefits both has experienced is being able to attend events off campus, including large conferences that feature top women in esports speaking on a variety of topics. At this October’s Academic Esports Conference and Expo in Chicago, for example, participants will be able to hear from 16 women who will be sharing their educational insight and their expertise and experiences in esports, including opening keynote Dr. Constance Steinkuehler, a Professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and former Senior White House policy adviser on video games and learning.

Though Zinn admits that “some women do feel uncomfortable entering this space,” support like that from women is particularly empowering.

“When I was at DreamHack, I attended an esports panel, and the women there were amazing,” she says. “They said you just have to work on being inclusive, instead of saying that you’re not exclusive. It’s super encouraging that other women are helping other women.”

Respect and relentless leadership

As a result of Zinn and Luce’s leadership and knowledge, as well as their work in fostering good game play, UCF’s players respect them. They share a lot in common, including the fact that they are high achievers.

“It’s a really good mix,” Luce says. “There are people like me who are into game design. One of my players is a computer engineer. We have a lot of STEM students and a lot of digital media honors students.”

Zinn adds: “We also have students who are National Merit Scholars, and we have honors students. A lot of our members come from all different majors. We have an art history major. It is a huge benefit.”

What Zinn and Luce both bring to UCF is both an understanding of the games being played and a knack for getting the most out of their athletes. They say the best esports players are committed to their craft, while possessing a willingness to listen and learn.

“They have to be dedicated to the game,” Luce says. “They have to be willing to get better and work well in a team environment. It’s the same as traditional sports. I think mental attitude really goes very far. Successful programs encourage their students to be positive, to want to work hard, and basically to enjoy what they’re doing and try to avoid burnout.”

Burnout is one of the hot-button topics in esports, and coaches and captains must be wary of managing their athletes’ time and game play.

“I think there’s a limit when you’re not leaving your house,” Zinn says. “If you just start to not have fun, if you’re not getting your basic needs met – going to get groceries – or stop working on a project with someone because you want to stay and play, that’s when the problem happens.”

The ability to manage those issues, as well as making sure their teams stay focused in their game play cannot be understated, especially on a campus that has hundreds of gamers. Students at UCF are passionate about esports. Those who are leading the way, Luce and Zinn, are having a tremendous impact on its future, beyond the screens and the streams.

“Look at who you have in the room right now,” Snead says, referring to her two women leaders. “You have a president and adviser who are female. This club specifically at UCF is breaking the norms. The students may not be thinking about those things, but I think about those things constantly.”


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