Vaughan

Courtesy photo St. Andrews University’s new esports lab includes new computers, streaming equipment and a viewing area for spectatators. The lab is located on campus inside the Vardell Building.

LAURINBURG — Billy Parry caught his family off guard when he told them he could earn a college scholarship by playing video games.

Parry still remembers how his relatives reacted when he broke the news that he’d be joining the eSports team at St. Andrews University.

“My dad told just about everybody in my extended family,” Parry said. “He couldn’t believe it. And all those times he told me to get off those video games — he ate his own words, basically.”

Parry recently wrapped up his shortened freshman season with the Knights’ brand-new eSports program. All St. Andrews’s spring sports teams had most of their schedules canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But long before the virus became a major issue, coach Denzel Vaughan was hard at work preparing the esports program for its inaugural season.

The beginning

After a successful collegiate wrestling career in which he earned two All-American awards, Vaughan graduated from St. Andrews in 2015 with a degree in game art design. He then spent some time as as an assistant wrestling coach under then-head coach Joe Baranik.

Eventually, Baranik and Vaughan went their separate ways, and Vaughan pursued a new opportunity — one he was very familiar with. SAU administrators asked Vaughan if he’d be willing to oversee the school’s new esports program, and he was more than willing to do so.

Vaughan already had plenty of experience playing video games competitively. One game in particular that he had experience with was League of Legends, an online multiplayer battle arena video game.

“Back when I was an undergrad, we had a club program that I started, coached and also played on. We played League of Legends competitively at the college level,” Vaughan said. “We just thought it was all for fun.”

That experience paid off. Vaughan now coaches an esports team that plays League of Legends and a handful of other games competitively.

The team

The St. Andrews eSports roster includes players from a variety of backgrounds. Some came to St. Andrews to play other sports, and they started playing esports on the side. Others have been dedicated gamers for years.

Parry is one of the players who originally played a different sport.

“I came here for swimming originally, and I found out there was an esports program, so I joined it just to have fun on the side — just an outlet for all the stress between school and sports,” Parry said.

Another example is senior Kieran Kilcoyne, a native of Oxford, England.

“I came here on a soccer scholarship, so I started on the traditional sport route,” Kilcoyne said. “After playing for a couple years there, I spoke to Denny (Vaughan). He told me they’d be starting the eSports program. I could see that he had a great vision for the program.

“He knew what he wanted it to become. He knew the direction he wanted it to go in, and that inspired me to come down the esports route instead. I’ve always been a big fan and a big player anyway.”

Some of their teammates have been playing video games for a long time. Peyton Davis, a freshman from Odessa, Missouri, made sure he had plenty of time to prepare for his collegiate esports career.

“I graduated (high school) in 2018, and I took a year off just to play Call of Duty,” Davis said.

Deliano Jeffries, a freshman from South Carolina, has been a gamer for years — but it took him some time to reach his full potential.

“Before, I was playing Smash Bros. and a little bit of Tekken competitively,” Jeffries said. “I like fighting games a lot. I played a lot of Smash Bros., and I kind of got my feet wet in the competitive scene. I’ve always been interested, but I was always really bad.”

With a lot of practice, Jeffries improved his skills and became serious about gaming. He learned that it’s not easy to win as a competitive gamer. It takes a lot of preparation and studying.

“It’s all about getting your hands warmed up and getting into the mindset for the game,” Jeffries said. “You need to have knowledge of the player and the character that (the opponent is) good at. Or any low-key picks — characters that don’t get played as much, you’ve got to watch out for them. They have things they can exploit because you have lack of knowledge of the character.

“You learn about a lot of match-ups. You learn about how the person plays … It’s like any other sport, you’ve got to learn about your opponent and what they do.”

Moving forward

Not long before the rest of the season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Knights unveiled their new esports lab inside the university’s newly-renovated Vardell Building. The lab includes dozens of new computers — complete with headsets and gaming chairs — as well as a viewing area outside the lab where spectators can watch matches on TV screens.

In addition to providing a comfortable environment for the esports players to compete in, the new lab will also be a good recruiting tool as the Knights look to bring in new gamers in the years to come.

But perhaps the biggest selling point is the fact that gamers can get their education at least partially paid for if they join the esports program.

“The aspect of being able to award scholarship money is a big talking point, especially for parents,” Vaughan said. “Most of the students who are interested, they’re interested just to come and play. It’s really about getting the parents on-board and involved.

“They think their kids are wasting time playing video games for two or three hours a day. But some of these kids end up developing really good skills.”

Recruits who choose to join St. Andrews’ team will become part of a tight-knit group.

“The camaraderie within the team has been a big positive for us,” Kilcoyne said. “Everyone gets along really well, and none of us knew each other before we joined the team.”

“We’ve had a couple bumps along the way because the program’s so new,” Kilcoyne added, “but overall everyone’s really enjoyed it. I can see that Denny’s been working hard to get things done for us.”

Vaughan

Courtesy photo St. Andrews University’s new esports lab includes new computers, streaming equipment and a viewing area for spectatators. The lab is located on campus inside the Vardell Building.

SAU eSports team develops in its inaugural year

Brandon Tester can be reached at [email protected] or 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonTester.

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