Coach Dylan Gentilcore watches as players compete in the Rocket League esports competition
Dylan Gentilcore, UW-River Falls varsity esports coach, watches as players from Rural Virtual Academy of Medford prepare for a Division 3 match against Jefferson High School in Rocket League during the Wisconsin High School Esports Association Winter 2023 State Finals at UWRF. UWRF, which is launching a varsity esports program in fall 2023, hosted the event for the first time and welcomed 20 teams from across Wisconsin. Pat Deninger/UWRF photo.

Getting into gaming: UW-River Falls hosts successful esports state tournament

Event showcases growing popularity as UWRF will start its varsity program in the fall

March 21, 2023 - Hunched forward in his chair, Hunter Wrezinski stared intently at the screen in front of him as his thumbs clicked his video game controller with rapid-fire precision.

Seconds later Wrezinski uttered “oh!” as he directed his video game vehicle upward to intercept a soccer ball and send it forward toward the car of one of his teammates, who quickly sent the ball into the opponents’ goal. 

The audience who witnessed the score during the match between Wrezinski and his Stevens Point Pacelli High School teammates and their Random Lake High School opponents cheered loudly. Wrezinski smiled as his coach, Dana LaMotte, clenched her fists in triumph and yelled “yes!” 

“This is so much fun,” Wrezinski said shortly after his team won the semifinal matchup. “Esports teaches teamwork, because you really have to work together to score like that.”

Such reactions from participants are exactly what Dylan Gentilcore hoped for when he helped organize the Wisconsin esports high school championship on March 18 at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Gentilcore was hired last summer by UW-River Falls to coach its varsity esports program, set to begin in the fall. He previously coached the top high school esports program in the country at Carmel, Ind. 

“The excitement from the 20 participating schools and the audiences that traveled with them was incredibly electric and heartwarming,” Gentilcore said of the high school championship tournament. “So far, the feedback from everyone has been better than I could have hoped for.” 

The esports high school championship, overseen by the Wisconsin High School Esports Association (WHSEA), attracted team members’ families and other supporters. Stevens Point Pacelli and Random Lake were among 20 teams competing.

Esports is a term used for organized, team-based video game competitions that feature popular games such as Rocket League, Fortnight and Super Smash Bros. Turnout at the UW-River Falls event is one more sign of the growing popularity of esports, Gentilcore said. 

As evidence, membership in WHSEA has increased from seven teams in 2017 to more than 150 currently. A growing number of colleges are taking up the sport too. Some offer club competitions; others, like UW-River Falls, are offering esports as a varsity sport.

To accommodate its esports program – and to attract esports athletes – UW-River Falls recently unveiled a 26-seat state-of-the-art esports gaming center for competitive and recreational players. Gentilcore said the facility will not only allow for high-quality esports activities but will help attract students to UWRF. 

That is already happening, he said, noting starting an esports program has attracted students from elsewhere in the U.S. to commit to attending UWRF. Gentilcore anticipates an esports roster of between 30 and 40 members, with about two dozen first year or transfer students. 

Given the reactions of high schoolers attending the WHSEA championship, more of them may someday decide to attend UWRF. Tournament participants and their parents spoke highly of the host site, saying it compared favorably to last year’s state tournament location in Wausau.

“This is amazing,” Gabriel Dierks, a sophomore at Fox Valley Lutheran High School, said of the UWRF setup. “To have so many people here all here for the same reason, all excited for this game, it’s a great feeling.”

That sentiment is music to the ears of Kellen Wells-Mangold, UWRF associate athletic director. Several years ago, he began pushing for the university adopting esports, an effort he renewed last spring. “I’m not a gamer, but I knew this was something we needed on our campus,” he said.

As he watched the tournament proceedings, Wells-Mangold reflected on the work of organizing the event and getting ready for the upcoming varsity esports season for UWRF. He credits Gentilcore, hired last summer, with growing the program rapidly. 

“It’s been a lot, that’s for sure,” Wells-Mangold said. “But when you see the reactions of these kids, how they’re so excited about this, you know it’s all worth it.” 

Gentilcore agrees. Buoyed by the success of the WHSEA tourney, he already is planning future tournaments at UWRF. As esports increasingly are considered a sport, he is optimistic about building a highly successful program at UWRF that will be seen as one more reason for students to attend college in River Falls. 

“Five to six months ago, we were an absolute unknown quantity in the collegiate esports space. Now I have nearly a dozen students from different states committing to coming to UWRF,” he said. “The commitment we’re making through our investments in space, equipment, staffing, and events is clear to these recruits, and the opportunities are becoming more tangible each day. This is just the beginning.”

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