As a first-year student, Jon Smart ’23 was searching for a way to get involved on campus. When a friend in one of his classes mentioned the University has an Esports team, the Golden Pirates, that competes in tournaments, his interest was piqued. Upon attending his first tournament, Smart wanted to join the team and organize more matches. He began hosting monthly events that got larger each time, and eventually, about 60 players would come together. Now in his senior year, Smart has become the Golden Pirate’s president.

“I feel like it was through this organization that I met a lot of people who shared the same passion,” Smart said. “I really found a core for the Golden Pirates, and I tried to elevate us.”

What began as a small campus organization, the Golden Pirates has blossomed into a competitive Esports team that competes and wins on a regional level. From its inception, the team was a ragtag group of students whose interests ranged from tabletop games to video games. Now, as a member of the Southern Collegiate Athletics Conference (SCAC), the members have found a community of like-minded gamers.

As the team has grown, they’ve added newer and more skilled players. They began the 2022 season near the bottom of the division. However, when Avery Kahl ’23 found out about the Golden Pirates, he contacted Smart to see if the team needed any new players. It was about a week and a half before a big conference competition, so Smart was hesitant to add someone new. However, once Kahl played a few rounds of Valorant with the team, Smart realized what an asset he was. Days later, Kahl competed in his first competition with the Golden Pirates against Colorado College.

“We lost pretty terribly to them in the preliminaries,” Smart remembers. “But then, something very beautiful happened. We made this huge upset against them. We beat them, and suddenly, we were slated for second place at the bare minimum. We went from the bottom seed of the tournament to second place. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.”

Along with competitive play, the Golden Pirates foster leadership positions for those that seek them out. Art major Everett Van Maren ’25, the coach of the Valorant team, enjoys helping his players get better. Whether that’s through reviewing footage to improve gameplay or instilling confidence, he says being a coach is something he’s grateful for.

“Everyone on the team just makes you want to be better,” Van Maren says. “It’s been a great experience. The team is gaining momentum, and I’m bettering myself by learning to be more confident as a leader.”

Inclusivity is also essential to the team’s ethos. While gaming is typically a male-dominated space, team members want to provide a place where women and nonbinary people feel welcomed. Alexa Levario ’25 said she was hesitant about joining the team. She skipped the first meeting because she was intimidated by what she thought was a room full of men. It wasn’t until another member, Linh Le ’24, extended an invitation to join that she felt comfortable attending a meeting.

“I like the inclusivity here,” Levario says. “Once I started talking to everyone, I felt a lot better. They remind me of my brother, who I grew up playing video games with.”

Smart has even introduced a space for women, those who identify as women, and nonbinary people to meet without the team’s male members. When he learned about another university creating a space for its female players dubbed Fem-Fridays, he knew it was essential to implement that within his own organization.

“I want to bring them into this organization,” Smart said. “Because no matter what game they play or how they think, we want them to join. We want them with us.”

Going forward, the Golden Pirates are working to become an official sports team within the Southwestern Athletics Department. For now, however, the team is grateful to have a space to call their own that Director of Technology Support and Services Daryl Tschoepe helped them acquire on the third floor of the Prothro building. It is here that they can come together, practice, and build a winning organization.

The games don’t end with graduation for these members. Smart will begin graduate school at Miami University, focusing his studies on Esports Management. Once Van Maren graduates from Southwestern, he wants to be a video game graphic designer. He’s inspired by game accommodations regarding accessibility and hopes to create something for visually impaired people.

“Games are my passion. I’m a very big fan of expressing yourself artistically through video games,” Van Maren said. “My goal is to make something so people can enjoy the wonder and artistic beauty I see.”

If you are interested in joining the Golden Pirates, contact Jon Smart for more information.