Art Institute’s 'Titanfall' gaming tournament kicks off

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Americans may think of presidential challenges as part of long-forgotten gym classes packed with endurance runs, pull-ups and other strenuous tasks that no student ever sees a president complete.

For the Art Institute of Pittsburgh’s President’s Gaming Challenge — a 3½-hour March Madness-style video game tournament starring Respawn Entertainment’s blockbuster Xbox exclusive “Titanfall” — school president George Sebolt was not only front and center for the action but was challenging students to knock him and his team of staffers off of the bracket, a task he admitted would be a lot easier than the team name, “Presidential Pain,” implied.

“My team will talk a big talk that we’re going to be undefeated when really, secretly, we’re pretty bad at this game,” confessed Mr. Sebolt. “So what typically happens is we’ll play our first round against a team we know we can beat, like another faculty group. We end up beating them and saying, ‘See, I told you.’ Then, inevitably, we play against a student team next and we get crushed.”

Crushing defeats aside, the gaming challenge — now in its fourth year — is considered a win for Mr. Sebolt and his students alike.

The challenge kicked off Wednesday with 10 wall-mounted flat screens, pounds of complementary meatballs, stacks of literature and gaming guides, 26 teams of four, and more than 100 students waiting in a student common area at the Downtown school to play and watch the show unfold.

“Titanfall” a multiplayer first-person shooter featuring deep space wars fought by soldiers called “pilots” and massive “Titan” robots that drop from the sky at opportune moments, released its sixth update for the Xbox One console and for personal computers Wednesday.

Mr. Sebolt, who brought the tournament to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 2010 after it was created during his run as president of the Art Institute of California, Orange County, said the original goal was to use gaming to bridge the gap between students and faculty.

At the invitation of Stig Asmussen, game director at Los Angeles-based Respawn, and Brad Allen, senior artist at Respawn, Mr. Sebolt upped the ante to allow students to make closer connections to institute alumni who are established industry insiders.

Mr. Asmussen, a 1998 institute graduate, was creative director on the Sony PlayStation franchise hit “God of War,” a single-player title focusing on Greek mythology and a Spartan warrior hoping to sever his ties with the gods. Mr. Allen, who graduated from AIP in 1993, was the senior artist behind much of the “Call of Duty” franchise, a multiplayer first-person shooter taking place in wartime scenarios.

Bringing the two men in to play during the tournament and to work as featured panelists during a Thursday morning gaming industry roundtable at The Rivers Club was the perfect way to highlight the tournament’s networking opportunities.

“I think that interaction gives them something to aspire to,” said Mr. Sebolt. “If a student chooses [gaming] as the industry they want to get to, they can talk to graduates who successfully got into the industry, find out how they did it. It gives them ideas, tips and a possible path to get in.”

Noting how far the local Art Institute has come in terms of career options — there was no gaming major when Mr. Allen graduated and the school was only beginning to reach out to gaming students by the time Mr. Asmussen entered — both men said this class of students has access to resources that would have made their journeys much more simple.

After graduating, Mr. Allen said he bounced from working at Starbucks and painting film sets in Los Angeles until 2000, when he landed his first job designing game art. He and individuals in that company would eventually come together to form Infinity Ward, the company behind “Call of Duty.”

Mr. Asmussen started off as an architecture major and part-time bartender before he found his way to the Art Institute. Even with his degree under his belt, he worked double time — supporting himself with a day job and fine-tuning his demo reel for gaming companies by night — before landing his first job with Atari.

Knowing that the idea of making video games seemed like an impossible dream for him as a student, Mr. Allen said he hopes his and Mr. Asmussen’s visit helps show students the reality of the business.

“To see students from the school you actually go to having jobs in the industry you’re trying to get into makes it seem much more feasible,” said Mr. Allen.

Deborah M. Todd: or 412-263-1652. Twitter: @deborahtodd.

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