Davenport University made history as the first fully collegiate squad to qualify for CS:GO’s ESL Challenger League in North America. It marks a historic moment for college esports and has been years in the making at the private institution out of Michigan.
In the ESL Challenger League Season 41 Relegation tournament on July 12, Davenport University was fighting for their tournament lives in the lower bracket. The players on this CS:GO team were playing in the online tournament from their various homes across the country, attempting a final push into the next level of North American competition, the ESL Challenger League, after placing third in the ESEA Advanced league.
Davenport sophomore Collin ‘CoJoMo’ Moren himself was competing from Alabama in what he described as a “scuffed” setup, with an old desk, metal folding chair, and terrible internet.
Colin Graham, Davenport University’s esports program director, watched on Twitch as the team lost the match to Northern Forces 2-0.
“The energy was just kind of waning, I think they had been playing and practicing so much that they were just kind of hitting their limit,” Graham said in an interview with Dexerto.
Davenport failed to qualify for the Challenger League, one of the biggest competitions in North America, a region that has been hit hard by the exodus of talent and organizations to Valorant. The team was bummed, but the program was ready to bounce back and fight through the Advanced division again for another shot at collegiate esports history.
“We were very disappointed with that,” CoJoMo told Dexerto. “We were very disappointed and it was demoralizing. But I think we kind of just realized the bigger picture,” CoJoMo said.
That disappointment didn’t last long, however, as about two weeks later, on August 3, the team saw the Davenport University logo along with that of storied teams Evil Geniuses and MIBR for the upcoming edition of the Challenger League.
After some initial confusion on how they had made it in due to various teams dropping out, and if they would still need to play a qualification match against Unjustified gaming, ESL later let both teams into the Challenger League.
“It was just a roller coaster of emotion,” CoJoMo said about the saga.
Davenport became the first fully collegiate roster to make it into ESL Challenger after three years of competition that started in the no-man’s land that is the open division. The squad was heralded online and congratulated for hitting such a significant milestone in college esports.
“This is insane for collegiate esports,” Graham said. “I never thought we were going to be here. I thought we were going to be a League of Legends school when I started.”
How Davenport University built up its CS:GO program
Graham joined Davenport’s program in 2019 as an assistant League of Legends coach and quickly rose up to run the entire department. Once at the top, he polled the school to see what kind of interest he could find in the student body for specific esports and quickly found out that first-person shooters were a hit.
“Let’s just offer everything, let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks,” Graham said.
“And we ended up having a couple Rainbow Six players come up… and a group of about five students, including current Davenport students, came up to me with interest in Counter-Strike.”
The team saw some success in 2019, but the program only started to pick up in 2020 due to the global health crisis and esports being almost the only source of competition that kept going during that time.
At the start, Graham instituted a culture in the team of sticking together and competing for a common goal. Unlike in other college esports programs, every player on Davenport only competes for the school and is required to be on campus (except during the summer, when they compete from their homes) and maintain a 2.0-2.5 grade point average.
In other programs, players might be splitting time between playing for the collegiate squad and competing for other teams. They might also just sign up for one remote class at a college to play on their team.
But when players commit to Davenport University, they can only play for the institution and are required to attend in-person classes. Their current Division 1 squad (Davenport University has three CS teams), has competed at LAN tournaments together as well as in ESEA league matches.
“I think that a lot of people take collegiate CS as a joke because a lot of players are doing it as their secondary team,” CoJoMo said.
“There are a lot of players in ECL that also play on their collegiate teams, and it makes the whole collegiate scene suffer because it’s hard to put together teams, and there’s just so much inconsistency about which players are able to play or when they’re going to be able to play, and the collegiate scene struggles a lot because of that.”
The next piece of the puzzle for their success was bringing on Colin ‘koi’ Thor as their CS:GO head coach. The former MOUZ assistant coach and analyst has brought a level of expertise and mentorship that the program desperately needed, to the point that Graham let him run the ship.
“My stance with him, and my relationship, is, ‘I’m going to let you spread your wings and do what you need to do,’” Graham said about koi.
From there, the squad worked their way to where they are now. Even if they didn’t really reach the ECL in the traditional way, the squad put themselves in a position to qualify and have the culture that has kept them together — a rarity in the region, even at the highest level.
The future of Davenport University in CS
Qualifying for ECL is not what Davenport wants to be their peak. The school has teams in other esports, with the same culture and qualifications, and is bringing in international students to bolster its CS squad.
The school is also planning on adding a women’s team to its ranks in the near future.
Making history brings with it a level of notoriety and bargaining power with the institution and outside companies, according to Graham.
Counter-Strike currently gets the lion’s share of the university budget, Graham said, and almost all of it is going to growing the program — which includes the construction of an expanded esports facility for the fall semester — and developing their current players.
“I think the stance is that we want to use Davenport as a way to bring in young, talented individuals from around North America and give them a place to be successful and to grow and develop as CS:GO players,” Graham said.
While Davenport has yet to see a player go pro after graduating, it is not out of the realm of possibility for its current class of students and coaches.
As for their chances in ECL, the team expects a challenge, but CoJoMo thinks it’s nothing they can’t handle.
“I think that we’re going to surprise a lot of people and I could even see us making playoffs and showing what is possible in collegiate esports,” he said.