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AMHERST TIMES: UB’s ‘insane underdog’ team is off to the Final Four – in video games


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When the University at Buffalo men's basketball won a first-round NCAA Tournament game, ecstatic Bulls fans flocked to Twitter and Facebook to revel in the victory.  When the women's hoops team made it to the Sweet Sixteen, a large group of supporters lined the lobby of Alumni Arena to give them a spirited send-off. And the women's tennis team got a similar boost when they left campus this week for the start of their NCAA Tournament.
Now, another team of UB students has reached the final four of a major collegiate competition, but their feat has largely gone unnoticed.
Why? They're playing video games.
UB is one of four schools left in an e-sports contest that drew 200 teams from across the United States and Canada.
The five-member UB team only came together in late January, and it was not highly ranked entering the contest. That's why they chose the name ImprobaBull Victory.
But they knocked off the No. 1 seed and now they're on their way to Saturday's final rounds of the "Heroes of the Dorm" tournament. They'll compete in an arena in Los Angeles that seats 500 people, and many more will watch the tournament live online.
The teams are competing for a grand prize of free tuition for the rest of their time in school.
"We'll be in front of people that will cheer for us and stuff, so that could be cool," said Robert Sands III, a junior English major who grew up in Orchard Park and whose gamer tag is "V8der." "Or they'll boo us – we're from Buffalo."
Video game competitions have been around since the height of arcade games in the early 1980s, but PC gaming and the internet started the more recent boom in what is known as e-sports.
Today, players – often professionals – enter as individuals or in teams to compete for lucrative prizes while fans watch the proceedings in person or streaming online. The tournaments center on first-person shooter games, fantasy role-playing games or other game genres and players take them seriously.
"When the stakes are high, this is when you see people start to practice," said Marc "Markybottz" Coiro, a graduate pharmacy student from Brooklyn.
Players have formed e-sports teams on college campuses. Some colleges treat e-sports as a varsity sport, providing everything from coaches to scholarships. But most treat it as an informal, club sport.
UB has a gaming club, but it doesn't have a club-level e-sports team. The members of this team found each other on a collegiate e-sports website.
Sands, Coiro and fellow team member Allen "FantaFiction" Hu, a sophomore accounting major from Queens, all started gaming as kids and teens.
They watch other gamers and e-sports competitors online – Twitch is a popular service – and they know some people don't understand the appeal.
"It's the same thing watching a sport, watching a football game," Hu said.
Twitch lets players provide audio commentary and lets viewers provide instant feedback in a running chat to the gamers and to each other. Imagine if football fans could offer in-game comments that NFL players could see in real-time.
"I love the comments in Twitch chat," Sands said. "'They're from Buffalo, so they've already lost.'"
Sands said gamers aren't athletes, of course, but he played football for 10 years and he said e-sports also features a thrill of competition and a need to stay focused for your teammates' sake.
"Obviously it's very different. Gaming isn't as physically demanding, but there is definitely a very large mental aspect, I feel, to e-sports and your average sport," Sands said.
Different companies sponsor the various tournaments, with Blizzard Entertainment sponsoring the "Heroes of the Dorm" contest.
Participants will play Blizzard's "Heroes of the Storm" game. Sands calls it a "strategic combat game" in which a team of five plays against another team of five. Players pick from a large universe of characters, each with unique weapons.
"You can say it's a chess match," Hu said.
The members of the UB team practice for hours each week, individually and as a team. When they play as a team, they're all in their own apartments but connected online. Saturday's "Heroic Four" will be the first time they'll all sit side by side while playing, and it will be the first time they've played in front of an audience like this.
Early-round competition whittled about 200 teams down to the 64 that were seeded like those in the men's and women's college basketball tournament.
No one, not even the members of the team, expected big things from UB.
"There's no reason they should have gotten this far," said Mark Fujii, a Blizzard representative. "They're an insane underdog."
Hu said the No. 1-seeded University of California, Irvine, team was cocky before their match with UB.
"They were the favorites," Hu said. "They were super boastful about themselves."
"Boy, were they surprised," Sands said.
The members of the team – they also include Justin "Matzoballz" Goo and Jianyu "sethlordson" Zhang – said they work well together and they do a good job dissecting previous performances and looking for ways to improve.
Even though Buffalo loves an underdog story, people on and off campus haven't embraced the gamers. "I'll have to answer that with a hard 'no,' " Sands said. "But we have gotten a little bit of attention, peers showing support."
They said they hope a win Saturday would bring further notice.
The team is getting an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles for the tournament, held in the studio now owned by Blizzard where Johnny Carson and Jay Leno filmed "The Tonight Show." Blizzard is providing team jerseys, too.
The semifinals start at 4 p.m. Eastern time, with UB taking on Cal Poly Pomona. The finals will take place later that night.
If they win, the members each get up to $25,000 per year to finish their current degree program.
"Winning, just alone, is such an achievement, separate from the prize itself," Sands said.

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