ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — Jacob Mitich, a 23-year-old student from Fallston, had made it to Round 2 of the “Madden NFL 19” tournament in Jacksonville and had almost scored a touchdown when the shots rang out.
Vaulting over a table, he scrambled to exit the crowded room. At first he ran outside to the waterfront where he and friends had watched dolphins the day before. Thinking the shooter might follow, he sprinted for a few more minutes, operating on pure adrenaline.
"That's when my leg started to hurt bad. I thought it was cramping,” he said. “I went to grab my left leg and there was blood everywhere. I'd been shot."
Mitich was one of 10 people injured Sunday during the esports competition. Three others died, including the shooter. The victims were 22-year-old Elijah Clayton of Woodland Hills, Calif., and 28-year-old Taylor Robertson of Giles, W.V.
Police say 24-year-old Columbia resident David Katz fatally shot himself after spraying the crowded room with bullets.
Now, Mitich filed a lawsuit against the game developer that held the tournament, the pizza parlor that hosted the event and the mall where it was located.
When Mitich registered for the Jacksonville Madden Tournament, the lawsuit states, “he had an expectation that he would be provided with a safe place to compete and that the organizers and hosts would take reasonable steps to ensure his fellow competitions and spectators would not harm him or others.”
Mitich and his attorney filed suit Thursday in circuit court in Duval County, Fla.
"We're sitting there playing a video game, we shouldn't have to worry about someone coming up behind us and shooting us," Mitich said.
Mitich is a longtime “Madden” gamer who graduated from Harford Community College in May. He and other elite esports players went to these kinds of tournaments not only hoping to win money, but also to catch up with their tribe of gamers.
When he met up with his friends Friday night, they went to check out the tournament space at Chicago Pizza, the restaurant and bar inside The Jacksonville Landing mall.
"We were all laughing because of how small it was," he said.
He and his friends went to the tournament all day Saturday. It was so crowded that they had to compete in groups of 10, and people couldn't easily watch their friends play.
On Sunday, everyone rolled into the tournament area around 10 a.m. Sometime that morning, Katz, a former champion gamer, lost but didn't make a big deal about it and few people paid attention.
"He didn't like to communicate. He was antisocial," Mitich said. "The previous year he'd won Buffalo Bill club series. I didn't think he had a reaction to winning or losing."
Then it was Mitich's turn. It was Round 2, which meant he was advancing in the tournament. His friend Robertson stood behind him and watched.
Mitich made one play on offense and almost scored.
"Pop pop pop. I thought it was a balloon. I didn't know what it was," Mitich said.
He heard someone say the word, "shooter," and that's when he ran.
Robertson was right behind Mitich, or so he thought.
The last thing Mitich remembers of the shooting, the lawsuit states, “was the genuine belief that he was going to die, a victim of another mass shooting.”
Mitich's injuries weren't life-threatening. He was released from the hospital that night and flew home Monday morning. Robertson, however, had been fatally shot.
Mitich's attorney, James Young with Morgan & Morgan in Jacksonville, said the lawsuit alleges negligence. There was no off-duty officer for the event, which drew more than 100 people, he said. The mall had a private security guard, and she was spotted in the pizza place before the shooting, but Young said it's unclear where she was during the shooting.
On Wednesday, Jacksonville fire inspectors shut down Chicago Pizza. A city code violation report says the restaurant didn't have a permit to hold the “Madden NFL 19” tournament. Also, The Florida Times-Union reported that the restaurant's last approved building layout was submitted in 2009. Fire inspectors said the layout was altered without approval to create the GLHF Game Bar, the room where the tournament took place.
The restaurant's voicemail was full Friday and a message left on Facebook wasn't returned. When reached for comment, a mall spokeswoman didn't directly respond to the allegations, saying instead that the company is cooperating with authorities.
The suit not only asks for a jury to award Mitich compensation, but also seeks an injunction against Electronic Arts, ordering the company to revisit its policies and ensure future tournaments are safe. Mitich is demanding Electronic Arts be ordered to “coordinate with local law enforcement during tournaments” and “fully vet and inspect the venues in which it hosts tournaments.”
Electronic Arts didn't respond to an emailed request for comment, but in a statement earlier this week, CEO Andrew Wilson said they were canceling all scheduled “Madden” qualifier events "while we run a comprehensive review of safety protocols for competitors and spectators. We will work with our partners and our internal teams to establish a consistent level of security at all of our competitive gaming events."
Mitich is still struggling, his attorney said, dealing with not only the physical pain of his wounds, but the psychological trauma.
Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell and Hallie Miller contributed to this article.