(Video) game on: NAU Esports team heads to nationals

two students smiling as they look at a computer screen in the Advanced Media Lab at NAU

By the time Sam Stephens made it to NAU tryouts, he had already logged thousands of hours of practice. Stephens knew he was ready to play at the collegiate level and maybe even ready for regional and national competitions. 

As a freshman, the information systems major was selected among dozens of contenders to play on NAU’s varsity team—and it was there that he met fellow students who have remained some of his closest friends. They bonded through hours of strategizing and game play, learning lessons from their mistakes and becoming a stronger, tighter-knit team as a result. 

Stephens’ hard work has paid off: In May, the sophomore and his classmates are headed to the national championships in Arlington, Texas, where they’ll have a chance to play before thousands of enthusiastic fans and compete for a trophy. 

Christian Lamb, Caden Loebig and Sam Stephens smiling on a couch
Christian Lamb, Caden Loebig and Sam Stephens play Rocket League together almost every day.

You may think you’ve heard this sports story before. But here’s the twist: Stephens doesn’t play football or basketball, nor does he practice on a field or court. Instead, his chosen sport is Rocket League, a video game that combines soccer and NASCAR-style racing.

“It’s a lot like playing a collegiate-level NCAA sport,” said Stephens, the Rocket League team captain. “Anyone who makes those teams has built a solid foundation through thousands of hours of practice and competition. To get to this level, you have to be passionate about it, and you have to hone your craft every day.”

Once a niche interest, Esports like Rocket League, Valorant, Overwatch and League of Legends have become wildly popular in recent years—so much so that there are now professional and collegiate leagues where the best of the best compete. 

students wearing matching uniforms, wearing headsets and sitting at a row of computers
More than 1,400 NAU students play Esports, watch livestreams and chat with one another on Discord regularly.

At NAU, home to an Esports club established in 2018, more than 1,400 students play Esports, watch livestreams and chat with one another on Discord on a regular basis. A smaller number of enthusiasts gathers in person at the Advanced Media Lab to sharpen their skills, bond or just decompress in the midst of a challenging week of classes and studying. 

“Our club is very friendly, and we don’t get together just for gaming,” said junior Caden Loebig, also part of the varsity Rocket League team. “It’s a safe place for everyone: If you’re having trouble with school or with anything else, you can always just come and sit and talk with people. We’re here to raise each other up and make each other better people. It’s all about the collective.”

Fans, photo ops and bragging rights

Loebig, a creative media and film major, said all NAU students have the opportunity to try out for a handful of Esports teams each semester. If they’re chosen to compete, they’ll play a season of games against other schools’ teams as part of a collegiate league, with the opportunity to advance to regional and national events. NAU’s varsity Rocket League team—made up of Stephens, Loebig and sophomore Christian Lamb—is the first in university history to advance to nationals.

“We put in a lot of dedication and time with each other,” Loebig said. “We started this team just last semester, and we’ve practiced together almost every day since then. I think the three of us have different play styles that work really well together, and that’s what’s led us to the championship.” 

NAU’s varsity Rocket League team is the first in university history to advance to nationals.

What does an Esports competition look like, exactly? According to Loebig, the setting looks like any other sports arena, with stands for fans and big screens broadcasting the action—except in place of a field or court, there’s a stage lined with computers where the players assemble. Backstage, there are more computers set up where competitors can “warm up” before their big moment. Many competitions also feature a “red carpet” area where teams can take photos together when they arrive.

For both Loebig and Stephens, winning games and advancing to competitions offers more than just bragging rights. They said seeing their hard work pay off instills confidence, which could boost their chances of success in their chosen career paths: film editing for Loebig, project management or cybersecurity for Stephens.

“I think Esports teaches you the importance of dedication, hard work and perseverance,” Stephens said. “We weren’t always this good as a team; we had to put in lots of hours to learn specific skills and learn how to play well together. You can apply that to everything related to work and school: Never give up, because the more time you spend on something, the better you get.”


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Jill Kimball | NAU Communications
(928) 523-2282 | jill.kimball@nau.edu

NAU Communications