Kiran Yarlagadda was part of the early crowd that was enchanted by a new video game called “Fortnite,” an online survival game that has since exploded in popularity around the world.
But in 2018 when Yarlagadda and his friends at Centennial High School in Ellicott City first got involved, his skills were raw.
“I was horrible when I started playing,” he recalled with a laugh. “It took a lot of practice.”
Practice has turned into performance for Yarlagadda, a rising senior at UMBC who partnered with rising freshman Arveen Zarrabi to win the inaugural Collegiate Esports Invitational Featuring Fortnite on May 27. Yarlagadda, whose screen name is “VenomFN,” and Zarrabi, whose screen name is “Archher,” made up “Team poisoned arrow” and defeated “Team CSUF Fortnite” from Cal State Fullerton in the championship final.
“It’s great,” said Yarlagadda, who is majoring in computer science with an emphasis in cybersecurity. “It’s my first tournament that I’ve ever won, and it’s great to represent UMBC in Fortnite.”
Added Zarrabi, a Dulaney High School graduate who is majoring in bioinformatics, via email: “It feels great to win the invitational. I’ve come close to winning some other events in other leagues, but winning this one was really big for me.”
Chris Kindt — chief marketing officer for Gaming Community Network, which produced the tournament — said the success of Yarlagadda and Zarrabi stemmed from their strong rapport with each other.
“They really communicated well,” Kindt said. “They reacted well to each other. They were very fast to change what they were doing when they were going up against an opponent. So I think that’s what led them. They just had a great chemistry together.”
This isn’t the Pac-Man and Donkey Kong of the 1980s. According to market researcher Newzoo’s 2021 Global Esports and Live Streaming Market Report, the global esports audience is projected to grow to 474 million in 2021 with competitive gaming generating revenue just short of $1.1 billion by the end of the year. The report said the esports audience has enjoyed year-on-year growth of 8.7%.
According to Collegiate Esports Invitational organizers, more than 256,000 unique viewers watched the tournament.
“To me, what it shows is that there is a big thirst for people who want to watch collegiate esports,” Kindt said. “More college kids are playing, more and more schools are getting involved, more teams are brought on by their schools. So I think they want to see what they can do on a national level. They want to compete at a higher level and across schools. a lot of schools do tournaments against other schools, but they’re not sanctioned, and they’re not necessarily regulated. This is the largest collegiate tournament based on the number of schools and conferences. So I think this is where schools want to go to. I think there’s a big need based on the size of the game, and I think that’s why it drew a lot of people.”
Winning a competitive tournament was not a top priority for Yarlagadda when he first joined his friends in downloading Fortnite onto his personal computer.
“It was just an outlet after school,” he said. “My friends and I would hop on after doing some homework and chat it up, and it was just a way to get to know my friends. Slowly, I got more and more competitive. I wanted to get to higher-skilled lobbies. I wanted to get better at the game. That resulted in me playing a lot more and just competing. I saw this opportunity and took it.”
Zarrabi said he is still unsure about his skills.
“I just do not think I’m good enough and really haven’t put enough time into it, but compared to a lot of other games at different levels, collegiate Fortnite is surprisingly uncompetitive considering the popularity of the game,” he wrote.
After seeing noticeable improvement in his skills through the first six months that included four-to-five-hour practice sessions per day, Yarlagadda entered tournaments. But his best finish was a top-20 result as he learned the ropes against younger competitors.
“A lot of times now in Fortnite competitions, there are a lot of these younger children in middle school and high school that are insane at video games,” he said. “They have great reaction time, they’re very fast, they can pick new skills up. So it’s very hard to compete against them.”
Enrolling at UMBC and pursuing computer science reduced Yarlagadda’s practice time to about one hour on school days and about two to three hours on weekends and holidays. But he found greater success competing in tournaments involving other college students.
“In college tournaments, there are people my age and in my situation where they’ve got other things on their plate like school and other responsibilities,” he said. “So we might not have as much time to practice, but we’re all able to still enjoy the competition aspect of the game.”
After Yarlagadda connected with Zarrabi through a Discord channel dedicated to Fortnite, the duo progressed to represent the America East and was awarded the No. 1 seed in the eight-team field of the Collegiate Esports Invitational. Despite the lofty ranking, Yarlagadda said he and Zarrabi did not feel much pressure.
“It was pretty good actually,” he said. “We were able to get our games done first, and then we were able to scope out the competition through watching the broadcast. … We honestly just entered it to have fun. We weren’t thinking too deep about winning or the money or anything like that. We were just trying to have some fun.”
Yarlagadda said his confidence swelled after he and Zarrabi escaped an upset bid by a team from Fayetteville State of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The format was a two-vs.-two elimination race in which two teams vie to eliminate as many characters over three rounds.
“After watching other competitors, we were like, ‘Oh, we definitely have a chance if we play smart, we get our eliminations up, we play tactical,’” he said. “It definitely clicked with us that we had a great chance.”
Added Zarrabi: “We were really confident throughout the whole tournament that we would win the whole thing. … We really just played our game, we knew we were pretty good at the format being played and executed on everything we had practiced.”
By defeating Cal State Fullerton for the title, Yarlagadda and Zarrabi collected the top prize of $5,000 and the lion’s share of a $10,000 prize pool shared by the entire field. Yarlagadda said he intends to use his portion for tuition and savings.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “I’m looking for future tournaments, but this was run beautifully. They even asked for advice on future tournaments, and it seems like they might do future tournaments. So I’m excited about possibly defending our title.”
Asked whether he would welcome a target on his and Zarrabi’s backs because of their status as reigning champions, Yarlagadda replied: “That would put a lot of pressure on us. We would definitely be looked at as the favorites, but we would look forward to it.”