Virtual teammate at last appears in 3D
Esports athlete and online student Muhammad Nasir visits campus, joins UND teammates to compete in tournament
Of course, UND’s online students have been known to visit the bricks-and-mortar campus in Grand Forks from time to time. But even so, the situation that brought Muhammad Nasir, an online sophomore from Massachusetts who’s studying aerospace engineering, to the UND campus on Oct. 19 stands out.
That’s because Nasir is a member of UND’s North Dakota Varsity Esports team. Coming to campus allowed him to not only take part in an in-person esports tournament – and thereby fulfill a dream – but also gave his teammates the chance to bond with someone they’d only ever spoken to online.
“I’ve never been to a LAN (local area network) tournament before, or a tournament setting, and I’ve always wanted to do that,” Nasir told UND Today. Moreover, because Nasir’s schedule – he works full time as well as taking online classes – at last eased up enough so he could make the trip, “I just thought it was good timing. … I just thought this would be the perfect time for that to happen, where I’m representing a school, and I have a team that I’m playing with consistently.”
Nasir always has been into gaming, and his game of choice is “Call of Duty,” a military-style game where teams compete to eliminate each other from virtual combat situations. He said that over the years, he became proficient enough to try his hand at competitive gaming. Luckily for him, then, he chose to attend UND, which has a growing presence in esports (alongside varsity esports, UND offers the state’s first bachelor’s degree in esports, which was approved in early 2022).
Ryan Kraus, esports head coach, said he had to think for a moment when Nasir reached out to him to ask if he could join the varsity team. That’s because, well, all the other members are on campus. But given that Nasir was already a UND student studying online, and the nature of the games allows for distance participation, it was an easy decision to include him.
“We said, ‘Yeah, that’s totally fine,’” Kraus said.
As a matter of fact, it was UND’s online presence that first attracted Nasir to the University.
UND is among only a handful of universities that offer an online bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. And just as participating in a LAN tournament had been one of Nasir’s dreams, another is working at NASA. Nasir’s online handle is “Space,” and the UND degree is what he needs to advance his career.
Since its recent inception, the aerospace engineering program has attracted more than 50 majors. It is available for students on campus, but having it online opens doors for people such as Nasir.
All things considered, Nasir said, UND just seemed like the best fit.
On campus, his recent visit also allowed time for a little team building, prior to the Rockstar Energy Collegiate Esports Invitational held at Minnesota State University Mankato. The tournament was held the weekend of Nasir’s visit (Illinois State University took top honors for “Call of Duty”). Kraus said UND’s Varsity Esports team has been invited twice to the tournament and hopes to head back next year.
Simon Palmer, a sophomore and varsity esports team member, said it isn’t unusual for online gamers to never meet in person. Players engage with so many people online and with such frequency they can become close: “You don’t even know a lot of their real names, but they’re people that you build a connection with on a very personal level,” he said.
Still, having the team together for practices in the esports complex in Swanson Hall allowed the members to build chemistry. “Doing it in person is a lot easier because everyone can be in the same room, watching the same screen, and just be able to talk anytime,” Nasir said.
Fellow sophomore and teammate A.J. Lake agreed. “Now that we’re in person, we can mesh a little better,” he said
It felt a bit surreal for him to be physically present on the UND campus, Nasir said. But he was wonderfully impressed by the campus’ size and beauty.
Matt Clauson, a senior and varsity teammate, also found it surreal to have an online teammate – someone with whom he’d been speaking to remotely for the past three months – at last be in the same room with him and the other team members.
“It’s just nice to put a face to the voice,” Clauson said.