From the classroom to the computer: Former WO student in Esports

Ben Sanders

In his bedroom, then West Ottawa Sr. Gabe Niziolek throws down his backpack. The math homework could wait. Niziolek turns on his monitor and loads into the arena. His mom passes by and takes two steps back. She stands at the door frame, dumbfounded. 

   Worried that her son wouldn’t be successful, she thought about his future. He needed to get some work done to get into college. If Niziolek wanted to be successful, he had to get off the video games. Then, Niziolek got serious. He started to show potential in video games.

   Winning tournament after tournament, Niziolek’s skill steadily improved. His talent became ever more obvious. Niziolek started to get college offers to play Esports. He progressed through the ranks. Niziolek’s parents started to realize his potential. “When he started playing in tournaments and started getting serious, we saw he could get scholarships. We started to support it because he is actually able to do something with it now.”

   For two years now, Niziolek has been playing video games at the collegiate level. “I heard about Esports at Saint Ambrose through my parents. They showed me the campus, and I started playing with the team. I got hooked on Saint Ambrose.” Inspired by a passion for video games and fueled by his expertise, Niziolek decided to play for Saint Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. 

   The program itself started at the university in 2018. Recruited by the university, the current Esports Director Chase Neukam helped put together the program. Alongside the help of then Gaming Coach Josh Sides, the program took off. 

   With a new competitive program, the university looked for the best of the best players – Niziolek being one of them. Soon, the university had a team of experienced and skilled players in multiple different gaming disciplines. 

   Neukam said, “We wanted Gabe on the team because he showed initiative to be involved with Esports. Before he began his collegiate journey, he was getting involved with Overwatch League training camps put on by professional teams and seeking individual improvement to be the best version of himself.”

   Niziolek’s specialty, Overwatch, is his primary focus. The game Overwatch sets the scene for a futuristic 6v6 shooter game. With a colorful backdrop and intricately designed maps, players have multiple objectives. 

   Methodically, Niziolek moves through the arena. Executing every game mechanic perfectly, Niziolek reacts to the game at an unrealistic speed. In fractions of a second, he takes down his opponents. 

   Ranging from capturing objectives to eliminating all the remaining players, the game poses a challenge for gamers of all skill levels. “I’m a high diamond player trying to push masters.” With an aspiration for competitive games, he hopes to one day be in the Overwatch League. “It’s like the NFL for Overwatch.”

   Niziolek described his daily life. “I go to class, then I practice and/or do homework. Then I go to a scrimmage with my team or have a game in our division. Other than that I live a pretty normal life, I hang out with friends and go to class like any other college student.”

   For Niziolek and his teammates, practice is critical to success. For two hours a day, Niziolek and his team scrimmage another team, review gameplay, or go over different team compositions.

   The Esports room at St. Ambrose provides the team with the best equipment. Custom St. Ambrose gaming chairs line the tables there, with advanced Alienware PCs on every table. The room also hosts several couches and televisions that allow for the team to review footage. 

   Outside of practice, Niziolek mentions how serious competitions can be. “We get into a very competitive atmosphere. It’s a lot like zoning in for a big baseball game or even a track meet. You set your mentality to being ready to play and only focus on the game.” 

   Once the game starts, Niziolek goes straight into muscle memory and relies on skill as well as strategy. Working as a team for most tournaments, Niziolek has developed strong connections with his teammates.

   John Minuka, a teammate of Niziolek from Minooka Chicago, described his experience. “Playing with Gabe is fun, but also challenging. He loves to play very aggressively, which is fun, but also really hard. He’s a very good player and a fun dude in and outside of the team.”

   The competitions themselves have a bracket format, with several teams playing at once. These original placements on the bracket are done by rank and league. “The game is pretty simple. It’s a first to 3 type of thing, so you’ll play different game modes like control point, escort the payload, and capture point. Once you finish the game modes, you move up in the bracket,” Niziolek said.

   These game modes test the team’s ability to work together and communicate. This group collaboration along with individual skill has helped St. Ambrose’s team succeed multiple times. 

   In the success, Niziolek has found friends and formed memories. “My best memory is probably winning our first game last year. It was my first time playing on a team that was this good, so I was excited to go play. When I was told I was on the starting roster as a freshman, I got pretty hyped up. We won both of our games on our first day of competition. Winning our first game was awesome because I never thought I’d make it here.”

   Niziolek mentioned how tournaments and the sport itself have allowed him to meet like-minded players. These relationships have formed a broader mindset for gaming, beyond the computer screen. 

   Being a communications major, Niziolek manages his college course load with his Esports hobby well. While his talent and gaming skill persists, Niziolek learns more about the sport every year. Overall, the whole process has been a learning experience. 

   “Like most freshmen, Gabe came in as a freshman a bit lost. The coming of age aspect of living on your own and discovering who you are as a person left him with questions his freshman year. Now as a sophomore he is becoming more comfortable with his place on the team and leading the charge,” Neukam said.

   Neukam emphasized how driven and focused Niziolek is on improving himself as well as the team. “Gabe has a wild, fun, engaging, and sarcastic personality which fits perfectly with the culture our family has established here. We are proud of his growth and love to have him in the Ambrose Beesports family,” Neukam said.

   From improving his gaming skill to forming connections in the sport, Niziolek aspires to use his college Esports experience to become a coach or professional player. In the meantime, Niziolek hopes to take the most from his college experience and improve his gaming skills.