UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

GGs (good games) by the hundreds as UND hosts Esports tournament

Fenworks Esports State Tournament brings nearly 400 high school students to campus

esport students
A crowd of high school students watches the welcome ceremony from the Union’s Social Stairs. Photo by Walter Criswell/UND Today.

Editor’s note: In the UND LEADS Strategic Plan, the Learning core value calls on the University to “promote digital technologies for engaged learning and value-added opportunities for students, faculty, staff, alumni and collaborators.” The story below, which UND Today first published on Feb. 29, describes an effort by University faculty to promote digital technologies for high school students, many of whom — administrators hope — will like what they see and, eventually, will become students at the University. (As part of the same Strategic Plan effort and starting this fall, the University will require incoming students to take a class in digital literacy.)


Now, there was something one doesn’t see every day, at least not in UND’s Memorial Union ballroom: A headset-wearing teen facing a screen and waving his arms about, while wearing a jersey whose front showed a headset-wearing bird. It was a bizarre sight until you saw that on the teen’s screen was the popular VR rhythm game “Beat Saber,” and with his arm movements, the teen was slicing red and blue blocks in near-professional time with the music.

This was one of the many sights and games on display at the annual North Dakota and Minnesota Esports tournament held by Fenworks, whose CEO, Kaleb Dshaak, is a UND alum and the former program manager for UND Esports. UND hosted nearly 400 students from 48 high schools around the region for the three-day event, and featured contests waged on “League of Legends,” the competitive shooter “Valorant” and several others of today’s most popular competitive games.

Computers, competition, community

The tournament took place on the second floor of the Union, which transformed into something akin to a gaming convention: So, regional Esports programs had games such as “Street Fighter 6” set up for quick sets between tournament matches. Vendors were selling Pokémon pins and other gaming-related merch, and Gaming EDM or electronic dance music blared from overhead speakers.

Coaches, teammates, and parents were glued to monitors as students competed. Some screens displayed characters wielding colorful weapons and tossing smoke grenades, while others showed cars racing to knock balls into nets in high-speed soccer games. Meanwhile, just down the hall in the Union’s meeting rooms, competitors battled in chess and “Super Smash Bros.,” the crossover fighting game from Nintendo.

The hyperactive qualities of the games, complete with cartoonish graphics and flashy animations, shot extra energy into rooms already buzzing with the nervous energy of the competitors and their supporters.

At the bottom of the Social Stairs, competitors decompressed over games of pool as they chatted about their upcoming matches and how they hoped things would turn out. One of those students was Cody Henrickson of Norman County East, who was waiting with his teammates while they waited for their “Rocket League” match.

“We’re a little nervous, but I think we’re going to play well today,” Henrickson said about his upcoming matches. “We’d been playing for eight weeks to get ready, so it’s been a lot of practice week by week.”

While they’ve competed in other online tournaments, this would be his first in-person LAN event, Henrickson said. This added an element of community and connectedness for him, despite the competitive nature of the event.

“I think it’s cool: you get to meet a lot of new people. It also helps, as far as sportsmanship goes, to be able to shake your opponent’s hand after a match instead of just typing GG into chat after a game,” he said.

For the uninitiated, that means “good game.”

students playing game
Two high school students get ready for a round of “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate,” a crossover fighting game featuring characters from different franchises. Here, students pick characters from “Mario Bros.” and “Tekken” and get ready to duke it out. Photo by Walter Criswell/UND Today.

A new kind of spectator sport

“Rocket League,” the game Henrickson’s team was competing in, was probably the most accessible game to watch for non-gamer spectators. It’s soccer with a fast and furious twist; it’s played with cars bumping and crashing into balls and each other in a dome-shaped arena. It’s undeniably exciting to watch as cars flew off of ramps and tip balls into goalposts midair, making it perfect for an event like this.

However, some of the other games can be baffling at first glance. “League of Legends,” for example, is a complex multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game where two teams of five characters, including the spider-like demon Fiddlesticks, run around the three-lane map, killing minions and dragons to level up and destroy the opposing team’s towers.

Adding to the already confusing mix of spiders, cats and sorcerers running around the screen, “League of Legends” players have adopted their own lexicon, terms like “gank,” “jungle,” and “ult,” which are used liberally throughout matches as teams coordinate complex strategies.

Thankfully, during the League of Legends exhibition match between UND and Sheyenne High School, UND Varsity Esports Head Coach Ryan Kraus and “League of Legends” team member Anthony Mosser made a point of decoding the terms as they commentated.

For example, “jungle” refers to an area where nonplayer enemies are spawned and killed for easy experience. “Ganking,” at least in League of Legends, refers to a player moving from the jungle to one of the three lanes connecting the opposing bases, and “ults” are powerful ultimate moves specific to each character. The terms serve as catchy shorthand so that teams can communicate more complicated strategies and concepts succinctly.

And, while it may help to understand the stats, menus and individual characters,  the feeling the catharsis when one of the players jump out of their seat in celebration after getting a kill in an intense skirmish transcends the game’s complexities. Eventually, everything starts to click, and watching scythe-wielding Fiddlesticks peek around a wall to hurl projectiles at the giant brute Sion makes for just as engaging a watch as any nonvirtual sport.

What’s more, an appreciation begins to develop for the level of communication and strategy it takes to play the game at a high level. It clearly takes time for teams to develop the kind of synergy that is required to coordinate effectively, while keeping up to date with the everchanging game updates and mechanics.

UND League of Legends team
The UND Varsity Esports “League of Legends” team played against Sheyenne High School in an exhibition match on Feb. 23. Photo by Walter Criswell/UND Today.

Esports for a better ‘ed’

The same can be said for most games featured at the event. Matt Knutson, assistant professor of Esports at UND, thinks that there is value in such events, as the tournament can be a gateway to promoting the benefits of Esports and allowing the community to flourish.

“Esports teaches excellent soft skills such as in-depth communication. It also encourages them to engage in deep self-reflection when they’re struggling or the team is having problems,” Knutson said. “These are skills that a student can take with them going forward, after graduation into their careers.”

Moreover, Knutson said that events such as the Fenworks tournament give UND a chance to connect with the region’s high schoolers in a way that will help prospective students feel more connected to campus.

“We’re happy to work with Fenworks and the other institutions here on events like this,” he said. “The tournament solidifies their engagement with the institution because extracurricular activities such as Esports help students build community and encourage academic success.”

And, though video games often get a bad reputation as unproductive to a healthy life, Knutson says that Esports programs such as UND’s can mitigate the downsides of the sedentary pastime.

“Within the Esports program, we have a whole class on healthy gaming where we try to encourage taking stretch breaks, getting your body moving, and getting adequate sleep, hydration and nutrition, all those things that help performance,” he said. “Right now, we’re working on a project with Public Health to give students visual reminders to encourage healthy gaming practices within the department.”

Matt Knutson (left), assistant professor of Esports at UND, moderated a panel for students interested in collegiate Esports. The panel featured UND Varsity Esports Head Coach Ryan Kraus (right) as well as (not pictured) Mark Deppe, director of Esports at the University of California-Irvine, and Alyssa Duran, interim director of Esports at Shenandoah University in Virginia. Photo by Walter Criswell/UND Today.

Tournament Results

In North Dakota competition…

  • Rocket League: Mandan Braves (Mandan High School), first; MHS Magi Varsity (Minot High School), second
  • Chess: Davies DS (Davies High School), first; South KF (South High School), second
  • Fortnite: Dunseith Assassin’s Nation (Dunseith High School), first; Harvey Fortnite 2 (Harvey High School), second; Firebirds1 (Devil’s Lake High School), third
  • Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: Dunseith Donkey Kong Assassin (Dunseith High School), first; GFC Smash Bros.(Grand Forks Central High School), second

In Minnesota competition…

  • Rocket League: Ponies Varsity (Stillwater High School), first; NCE Sizables (Norman County East High School), second
  • Chess: Yellowjackets Chess (Perham High School), first; Park Rapids Tucker (Park Rapids High School), second
  • Fortnite: ABW Borgen Farms (Ada-Borup-West High School), first; Red Lake They’re One Shot Bro (Red Lake Falls High School), second; NCE 3xSmarter (Norman County East High School), third
  • Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: Park Rapids-King K Rools (Park Rapids High School), first; NCE Mr Baefy (Norman County East High School), second

In cross-state bracket competition…

  • Valorant: Yellowjackets Valorant (Perham High School), first; RRHS We Smurf Your Peak (Red River High School), second
  • League of Legends: Sheyenne Varsity (Sheyenne High School), first; FPS LoL (Fargo Public Schools), second

You can watch the “League of Legends” finals below and check Fenworks’ YouTube channel for more matches for the tournament.

UND, Fenworks helping games grow

Not long ago, Esports were relegated to niche national events and smaller regional competitions, largely tucked away from mainstream consciousness. They’ve come a long way, and Fenworks and UND are playing a pivotal role in advancing them in the region.

The strides aren’t lost on Kraus, who started competitive “Super Smash Bros.” clubs in high school when there were no formal programs. During a panel on Esports on the event’s opening day, he reflected on the evolution of Esports as a legitimatized competitive activity.

“Five years ago, you’d only hear rumors about Esports programs; there were only a handful,” he said. “Now, high schools and colleges in pretty much every state have them. Being able to see the growth of Esports in such a short time has been tremendous. There’s a little kid in me that wishes that I could have competed in stuff like this when I was younger, but I’m just as happy to kind of navigate into the future of Esports.”

Later in March, Fenworks will hold a Special Olympics Esports event. Stay tuned on their official website and Facebook page as details roll out.

Also, stay up to date with UND Varsity Esports matches by following their Twitch channel were they broadcast games including “League of Legends,” “Call of Duty” and more.


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