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Logging On: When the world slowed down during the pandemic, UTK Esports club exploded on campus

UTK Esports has more than 1,600 members and continues to grow.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — In the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, much of the world was shut down causing many people and organizations had to push their plans and events to 2021, but the gaming community at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville thrived.

“UTK Esports is the largest club on campus,” President of UTK Esports, Brady McLaughlin, said. We're dedicated to all things related to gaming on campus.”

What started as a tight-knit club six years ago, UTK Esports now has over 1,600 students and they’re welcoming more.

“We cover basically every single game you can imagine,” the League of Legends coordinator for UTK Esports, "Phoenix" Blankenship, said. "If we don't cover a game, then we'll likely find a way to include it.”

In addition to League of Legends, the club’s subgroups include games like Overwatch, Call of Duty, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Rocket League, Hearthstone, Fortnite, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, Rainbow 6: Siege, Dungeons & Dragons, Splatoon, and more.

For many gamers, gaming is a way of life, whether it’s for competition or just for fun.

“I've been gaming since I was like a kid,” said the former UTK Esports president, Harrison Fain. "My first memory is legitimately playing the first Super Mario game with my mom at the beach, so it kind of left an imprint there.”

The UTK senior was club president during the height of the pandemic.

While most of the world was forced to slow down, Fain said the number of players logging on shot up.

“That's the beauty of gaming,” he said. "No matter what the game is, it usually has some kind of online service with it. Even though you want to be in person you can get through those times going online with it.”

Unlike 2020, UTK Esports now meets in person twice a semester in a lecture hall, where they bring their own PCs and set up their own tournaments.

“There's always just something going on,” Fain said. "I think it's very wholesome and very connected.”

The club gets a fair amount of support from UTK, funding student trips to national competitions.

Brady McLaughlin, the current club president, claims they have one of the best Call of Duty teams in the nation and a top-four Madden NFL player.

While UTK may not award scholarships to great esports players, other universities such as Boise State University, Western Kentucky University and Kent State University do.

“I do think in the future, UT will see the light and help grow the esports scene on campus,” Fain said. "It's tough to say if there is a ceiling, it only seems like esports is growing.”

UTK Esports invites all players to join their club, regardless of age, sex, or gender.

“You could be an 80-year-old man walking in the door just wanting to play some games or you can bring your six-year-old kid here and they can come on through and play Super Smash Bros.”

UTK Esports also does frequent fundraisers for the community.

In November 2021, the club raised almost $5,000 for East Tennessee Children’s Hospital at their “Extra Life” event.

To get involved with UTK’s campus gaming scene, join the UTK Esports discord.