With a sweep of the Level Next Spring Showcase Paladin Playoffs, the University of North Texas varsity Rocket League squad advanced to the Level Next National Championships on June 4-6.
After moving past the tournament’s quarterfinals due to an opponent disqualification, UNT secured 3-0 series wins on May 22 over Wayne State University in the semifinals and the University of Connecticut in the finals to win the tournament.
With the victories on May 22, UNT became champion of the Paladin conference and thus one of 16 automatic qualifiers for the National Championships.
“I’m looking forward to playing against the top [College Rocket League] teams as one last chance to prove ourselves,” freshman varsity player Diego Aleman said. “Realistically, it’s a day-to-day thing for CRL in terms of who comes out on top. Hopefully this time around it’s us.”
A collegiate esports competition, the Level Next Spring Showcase allows teams from 16 different conferences across the U.S. to compete in a bracket-style tournament to qualify for the National Championships.
Rocket League is an online video game where players compete in vehicular soccer matches on two separate three-player teams. In the Level Next Showcase, teams compete in a best-of-five series each round to determine who advances.
The nation’s 24 remaining teams, including 16 conference champions and 8 Last Chance qualifying teams, compete for shares of a $75,000 prize pool that goes back to support both players and college esports programs. As collegiate sports were altered or canceled altogether due to the pandemic, esports have been able to continue.
Wray said this year — headlined by the Rocket League team finishing tied for No. 3 in the CRL National Championship — has been one of the most successful in the esports program’s history, all in a unique time.
“It’s weird [the year of COVID-19] was the year that our students won as many titles as they did,” Wray said. “All the same, it just kind of shows how resilient esports actually is.”
He has competed with the Mean Green for two years and began playing Rocket League during scrimmages with the UNT esports club. At the time, UNT only had a club team and not a varsity program, so Windebank began competing for the club by filling in for a starter unable to compete in a tournament.
The two other Rocket League varsity starters are Aleman and recent UNT alumnus Kyle Pressley. Aleman was recently honored as UNT’s most improved Rocket League player for the 2020-2021 season. The Level Next National Championships will be Pressley’s last collegiate Rocket League tournament competing for mean green.
Having now competed on the varsity team for multiple years, Windebank said esports provides a competitive outlet akin to traditional sports.
“There’s so much that overlaps with real sports,” Windebank said. “From the mental game, the strategies and the focus you need.”
Universities vary between having a club esports team and/or a separate varsity esports program. Depending on the university, club teams sometimes compete both casually and competitively.
Teams competing at the national level often consist of both university varsity esports programs and competitive club esports teams. UNT esports coordinator Dylan Wray said this makes for an interesting balance between teams.
“I think, on the whole, it helps out,” Wray said. “It brings a lot of attention to some of those Power Five universities that don’t have varsity programs.”
Prior to playing the Level Next Spring Showcase, the Mean Green lost 4-2 against Akron University on May 9 in the semi-finals of the Great Lakes Esports Invitational.
Akron went on to win the tournament and also won the recent Collegiate Rocket League Spring 2021 National Championship by defeating North Texas in the semi-finals.
Windebank said he would like another opportunity to play against Akron and said confidence will be key during the Level Next National Championships.
“We just need to keep playing confident,” Windebank said. “Even when we are playing better teams, we play really well when we are confident.”
Courtesy UNT Esports