How the QU Super Smash Bros. team marketed and recruited its way to national esports relevance


Connor Lawless

Quinnipiac Super Smash Bros. beat Siena in dramatic fashion to claim the MAAC title in March 2022.

Riley Millette, Staff Writer

The Quinnipiac men’s basketball team upset Siena to stamp its ticket to the MAAC tournament semifinals on March 10, 2022. The women’s basketball team was resting after beating Saint Peter’s the day before and would play its semifinal match on the same day.

Both teams attracted crowds and had media outlets clamoring for the big interview. But neither of them were the most successful Quinnipiac team in Atlantic City that day, or even that week.

That honor belonged to a group of 10 men playing video games 20 minutes down the boardwalk.

That’s where the Quinnipiac Super Smash Bros. Ultimate esports team stormed its way through the MAAC and won the conference title.

The team hoisted the MAAC trophy for the first time since the team’s inception in 2018. And the road to that achievement could not have been any less friendly.

The $360,000 esports suite on the York Hill campus that boasts 24 gaming computers was not always at the players’ disposal. For a while, they had to play — well, really anywhere.

“I remember playing some games in a dorm room, what was it, Irma?” said senior journalism major Julius Millan, a member of the team and a Chronicle staff writer. “I remember playing in a random room in the School of Business. I remember playing in (Cafe Q), in the student center. There were so many rooms we played in that it’s kind of hard to keep track of.”

Problem No. 1 with having a traveling office — or gaming suite — is Internet connection. The esports teams on campus played mostly in SC207 before the esports suite was built, but having a semi-permanent location didn’t solve any problems. Good luck finding 10 conveniently-placed Ethernet hookups in one room that work.

“It was fights for months to get Ethernet in there, we were playing on hotspots at one point,” said Justin Ellis, former Smash team captain and 2022 Quinnipiac graduate.

In order to use Ethernet connection to play games, which is far quicker and more reliable than Internet, IT had to grant each player special permission. Most universities, Quinnipiac included, have a firewall installed that prevents such a connection.

Director of Recreation Mike Medina advocated for resources for the teams, and was a leading voice in the fight for Ethernet alongside Ellis.

“Adding (Medina) is a big help because he cares, he’s someone who wants to get stuff done,” Millan said. “(Medina and Ellis) were able to lead the negotiation so that we can be where we are now.”

Medina, whose 8-year-old son plays Smash, recognized the potential of esports before anyone else. Back in 2019, when the industry was beginning its meteoric rise, the esports team was the “Quinnipiac Gaming Club” and was unrecognized as a club sport by the school.

Medina pitched the idea of giving the esports teams their own dedicated space to Chief Experience Officer Tom Ellett and Provost Debra Liebowitz in 2020. And before he knew it, there were plans for a brand new esports suite.

“It wasn’t difficult for (Ellett and Liebowitz) when they started talking about what esports is and where it’s going, to really feel like we’re not only taking the student experience piece, but they’re also taking something that is a future career path for the students because of the multi-billion dollar business that esports is right now,” Medina said.

Most of the players on the team are computer science or game design majors, and access to the esports suite meant an opportunity for both them and the school — hence the recent creation of the esports management major.

The Smash team rode the perks of its brand-new space all the way to a MAAC championship, which had two big effects for the players. The first was that, obviously, they had won something.

Quinnipiac esports competes at the 2022 MAAC Championships in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Connor Lawless)

“It was so much joy. I wasn’t really thinking anything at the time, it was just so much excitement,” said Jonathan Mason, a junior computer science major and the captain of this year’s team.

But it offered them exposure to a world no esports team at Quinnipiac had ever experienced. Having won the MAAC, the team was invited to the Collegiate Esports Commissioner’s Cup in Atlanta as one of 16 competitors in a national tournament.

Despite struggling with the budget and even considering taking the club into a deficit for the year in order to make the trip, the team decided to go anyway. The siren call of the national stage was too tempting, even before Quinnipiac decided to chip in a $1,000 stipend.

“Esports is not like your traditional athletics, where your Stanfords and your Ohio States and your Michigans and your UConns of the world are going to pump out championships,” Medina said. “It’s smaller schools who are making an investment in esports that can certainly become the best teams around. (CECC) is a door that opens to allow these students to have not only the regional recognition, but the national recognition that comes along with participating in this event.”

Quinnipiac’s match against Shenandoah on Sept. 9, 2022, is proof of that. The Bobcats were underdogs to the NACE competitors, but still pulled off the victory.

Even though Shenandoah’s stream had two commentators supporting the gameplay, graphic overlays to signify stoppage in play and several sponsors padding the empty space on those graphics, Quinnipiac proved anything could happen.

The Smash team’s transformation from a regional program to a national program has been a swift one. All of Quinnipiac’s esports teams are now members of the National Association of Collegiate Esports, a nonprofit group that provides some structure to national esports and hosts annual in-person events. Think of a weaker, less restrictive NCAA — that’s NACE.

Except this time, hopefully it’ll put money in the team’s pocket instead of burning a hole in it.

The Smash team launched a robust social media marketing campaign and is now streaming its matches. The MAAC has pushed all its members to stream more in order for the conference to collect its brand deal checks, but it’s a facet of the sport Quinnipiac has probed for its own benefit.

“Exploring sponsorships is something that’s gonna require more than just myself,” Medina said. “It’s a full institutional backing that needs to happen. I think the students are very receptive to it, because it’s going to reduce their costs that they would have to pay out of pocket.”

As the captain, Mason has taken some of that responsibility, and he doesn’t just want to stop at product placements and brand deals.

“I already have one person that’s lined up to do commentary for our matches, and there’s one more person that I still need to get on board with,” Mason said. “And as soon as I can get them on board with it, then all of our matches will have some commentators on them. So rather than just a silent stream, there’s more chance for people that might not be on the team but want to be involved to get their brand out there.”

It’s a simple equation: higher production value plus a winning team equals more engagement. More engagement equals more sponsorship deals. More sponsorship deals plus more winning equals higher production value.

And the cycle repeats. Except with each cycle, the stakes get higher and the prize gets bigger.

Despite a 7-0 record in the NACE regular season, the Smash team lost to Shenandoah in the NACE Conference Championship on Oct. 30.

This March, when both of the basketball teams head off for Atlantic City, the Quinnipiac esports teams won’t be far behind them. And even though the Smash team took home hardware last year, there will still be something to play for this year.