Madison Marquer was playing a show in a converted garage in Denver when he met her. It was 2014 and Marquer was a junior at the University of Wyoming, a baby-faced Eagle Scout from Cheyenne who’d become a fixture in Laramie’s college-town punk scene. That night he was on guitar for a band called Medicine Bow, earning his reputation as a magnetic performer—a blur of flailing limbs and sweaty, close-cropped hair as he tore through songs about SpongeBob SquarePants and ecological collapse.

In the crowd was Katherine Landvogt, a petite and pale-skinned 20-year-old who wore cat-eye glasses. After the set, she went up to Marquer (pronounced “Mar-care”), and they eventually got to talking about music. Landvogt was a guitarist, too, though she was earning her living as a house cleaner. She was dying to join a band, but none of the acts in Denver’s macho punk scene would give her a shot because she didn’t look the part. Marquer thought she was cute, with her curly black hair and off-kilter wit, and he hated that no one was giving her a chance.

This article appears in the July/August 2022 issue. Subscribe to WIRED.Photograph: Jessica Chou

Within a few months the two were living together in Marquer’s basement apartment. Landvogt wasn’t just a guitarist, it turned out, but a fluent and ferocious one. Medicine Bow soon slimmed down from a quartet to a power duo: Marquer on drums, Landvogt on a Fender Telecaster with a phosphorescent pick guard. 

When they weren’t making music, they were often side by side in front of their PC, clobbering dragons and druids and amassing hoards of gold in Dota 2, a complex fantasy-themed video game. The game had long been one of Marquer’s grand obsessions—he was among the top 7 percent of players in the world—and now he loved that it was theirs together. They lost themselves for hours on end, oblivious to the outside world, as empty liquor bottles accumulated on the floor and kitchen counter around them.

In February 2016, as Marquer was finishing his last semester at the university, Medicine Bow recorded a cassette that channeled the couple’s romantic hopes. I see an end to any sadness, one of the songs went. Let’s drink some tea and explore the country / The future is more than it seems.

Three months later, Marquer and Landvogt got married in a tiny chapel near Elk Mountain. Soon after, the newlyweds packed up their Subaru Impreza with Medicine Bow’s gear and embarked on a 41-day concert tour. They crashed on fans’ sofas, played a show at a Pastafarian church in Oklahoma, and reveled in the neon-lit chaos of Times Square. They were so blissed out that every excess and hardship of the road felt like a delight—all fodder for the amusing stories they’d tell their kids one day.

The giddiness faded after they got back to Laramie. Marquer, who’d majored in education, couldn’t find a teaching job with the local district. So to pay the couple’s $575-a-month rent, he took a mind-numbing gig sorting mail at the post office. Landvogt toyed with the idea of pursuing a degree in chemical engineering, but she could never follow through. While Marquer had largely reined in his college drinking, she had started making trips to the liquor store at 1:45 am—she didn’t want to run out of vodka after it closed at 2. Her addiction gradually stripped away her creative energies and robbed her of the ability to handle even routine tasks. Marquer got used to taking her to the hospital when things got bad. Then he’d be left wondering how and when each spell of sobriety would reach its messy end.

The couple’s main remaining source of joy was Dota 2. They found refuge in the game’s sprawling map, an expanse of dark forests and medieval fortresses. As they played, Marquer started to get a notion in his head: What if he sought out a job in the industry that had emerged around Dota 2? Maybe he could find work with one of the companies that stage the game’s massive tournaments. (The 2017 edition of Dota 2’s preeminent event, the International, in Seattle, had offered almost $25 million in prize money.) If Marquer could make that happen, maybe he could get Landvogt involved, too, and that would give her the structure to make a lasting recovery.

To achieve those very specific goals, Marquer decided to pursue a highly specific advanced degree. In 2018 he returned to the University of Wyoming to study for a master’s in geography, with an emphasis on understanding how gamers relate to the virtual maps that define their worlds. In particular, he studied how male gamers lose their inhibitions when exploring those maps—a line of inquiry inspired by the harassment he heard Landvogt endure during their Dota 2 sessions.

For a while, Marquer’s plan seemed to be working. In the spring of 2019, he received a research grant to attend a Dota 2 event in Birmingham, England. Landvogt had been mostly sober for a few months, so Marquer felt comfortable leaving her alone for a week. But as soon as Marquer left for the Denver airport, Landvogt went to a liquor store—the start of a harrowing bender.

When Marquer got back, the apartment was beyond filthy. There was mold in the coffee pot, and the cats were on the brink of starving. A bedridden Landvogt yelled out for Marquer to come give her a hug, and he found her too feeble to move. Not for the first time, Marquer called an ambulance. As he later sat by her bedside at Ivinson Memorial Hospital, Marquer realized he’d lost the will to keep serving as Landvogt’s rock. “I ended up divorcing her that summer,” he says. “I couldn’t do it.” Landvogt moved to Texas to live with a man she’d met while playing Dota 2. Marquer was left in Laramie to complete a degree that had lost a great deal of its purpose.

On April 8, 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic’s first wave was battering the US, Marquer got a call from the police in Haltom City, Texas: Landvogt had been found dead in her boyfriend’s trailer. An autopsy would reveal that her blood alcohol level was above 0.4, more than five times the legal limit for driving; acute and chronic alcoholism were listed as the causes of death. She was 26.

Marquer spent the next two months at his parents’ house in Cheyenne in a haze of grief. He managed to complete his thesis and get his degree, but it all felt hollow. He went through the motions of looking for a job in Dota 2, but with in-person tournaments suspended due to Covid, hiring was at a standstill. He paid his bills with temp jobs, stripping insulation from abandoned buildings and helping people navigate the Affordable Care Act. All the while, a suffocating cloud of depression stopped him from glimpsing any way forward.

In April 2021, about a year after Landvogt’s death, a friend of Marquer’s called to tell him about an article in The Cheyenne Post. Laramie County Community College (LCCC), the only institution of higher education in Cheyenne, was starting a varsity esports team. Athletic scholarships would be provided to gamers who were supremely skilled at the likes of Call of Duty and Super Smash Bros. The school was looking to hire a coach to lead the program, a one-year contract position that paid $15,000.

It wasn’t the entrée to the gaming industry that Marquer had envisioned for himself back when he’d set out to save his wife by finding them both a niche in Dota 2. But he recognized the community college job as a chance to perform a similarly meaningful act of devotion, helping young Wyomingites who might never even consider college if not for the lure of esports. And by immersing himself in that challenge, he might finally shake free of the specter of all he’d lost.

Cheyenne, Wyoming

Photograph: Shawn Bush

Cheyenne, Wyoming

Photograph: Shawn Bush

Save for the one week each summer when it’s mobbed with tourists for the rodeo extravaganza known as Frontier Days, Cheyenne exudes a quaint and dusty charm. The heart of its downtown, bounded by the gold-domed state capitol to the north and the freight tracks to the south, can be explored in half an hour, and there’s never a shortage of free parking in front of its cowboy-boot emporiums and cocktail bars. Beyond that central district is an array of handsome historic homes, faded motels with weekly rates, and an Air Force base that houses nuclear missile silos.

The 271-acre campus of LCCC—“L-Triple-C” in local parlance—sits on the city’s southern edge, across from the desolate grasslands that stretch to the Colorado border 8 miles away. Though many of the school’s 2,800 full-time students are Cheyenne residents, a fair share come from the isolated hamlets that are strewn throughout the massive state—windswept towns of a thousand or so that are dependent on gas drilling or coal mining. For rural kids, an LCCC degree can be an affordable ticket to a less secluded, less physically taxing future.

“I joke with my students all the time, ‘I want you all to get a nice cushy office job with air-conditioning, or sit in front of a computer for seven hours a day, and then go home to a nice house,’” says Richard Walsh, an instructor in LCCC’s information technology program and an alumnus of the school. “And that all starts with getting a good education.”

For years, Walsh had recognized that video games played an outsize role in LCCC social life. Because Wyoming’s weather can be so extreme—the long winters, the biting wind—and because there isn’t always much to do, the state’s kids spent a lot of time indoors, jacked into their Xboxes and PlayStations. That habit would continue once students arrived at LCCC, especially for the small-towners who felt alienated in the relative metropolis of Cheyenne; they would often cope with their discomfort, he noticed, by holing up in their dorm rooms and gaming online with friends from home.

One day in the fall of 2018, LCCC’s soccer coach called Walsh for help with a minor computer glitch. As Walsh fiddled with the troublesome PC, the coach mentioned that a friend of his worked at a Midwestern college that was launching an esports team. Walsh, an ardent gamer who has poured hundreds of hours into Apex Legends, made it clear that he was intrigued. Soon thereafter, the school’s athletic director asked him to chair a committee to investigate starting a similar program at LCCC.

At that time, esports teams were rapidly becoming commonplace at four-year institutions. In 2014, Illinois’ Robert Morris University had pioneered the practice of offering athletic scholarships to gamers; by 2019, esports athletes from nearly 200 colleges and universities were receiving $15 million in scholarships per year. Big institutions such as UC Irvine and the University of Utah were quick to establish elite programs, funneling millions into building spectator-friendly esports arenas and broadcast centers. Meanwhile, some lesser-known schools set out to raise their profiles by turning themselves into esports juggernauts: Missouri’s Maryville University, for example, has become famous for winning three national League of Legends championships and churning out a slew of pros.

Esports were slower to take root at junior colleges, which must be ever mindful of their tight budgets. (LCCC’s entire $84 million annual budget is about what Kansas State University spends on its athletic department alone.) But in the fall of 2019, the National Junior College Athletic Association Esports (NJCAAE) began its inaugural season, involving 12 two-year schools. The league’s startup costs were minimal by design: All that was required of each college was a $1,500 entry fee and the contact information for an adult who was responsible for the team. Athletes were permitted to play remotely from any computer, which meant schools weren’t required to buy any new equipment aside from the games themselves. The experiment garnered enough positive reviews that the NJCAAE’s membership more than quintupled by the start of its second season.

Walsh paid close attention to the league’s rollout while gathering information for a presentation to convince LCCC’s board of trustees that esports could generate immediate revenue. He knew money was even tighter than usual: The pandemic had led to a decline in enrollment and cuts in state support. (LCCC’s president has been frank in describing the college’s future as “a bit bleak.”)

By early 2021, Walsh had gathered ample evidence to prove that esports could bring in as many as 20 ­student-athletes per year and boost the college’s brand among potential applicants who’d been weaned on Fortnite and NBA 2K. Still, some of the school’s administrators scoffed at the idea that gamers deserved the same respect as, say, members of LCCC’s well-regarded rodeo team. “They’re not athletes, because an athlete, by definition, manipulates their body and muscles in a way to interact with some object,” Walsh recalls an administrator saying. “And I said, ‘You just described esports.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, no, they’re not moving.’ And I go, ‘They’re moving their wrists and their fingers with dexterity. And they’re using their brains in such a quick and decisive way. How is that not a sport?’”

Walsh knew he’d failed to convince everyone in the administration that Call of Duty is as athletically demanding as bull riding, but his proposal was approved in March of that year. The esports team was given $20,000 in scholarships to dole out, as well as $2,100 for expenses, including the NJCAAE’s membership fee. The next step was for the athletic department to hire a coach to build the program from scratch.

The college placed job postings seeking someone with a bachelor’s degree, a driver’s license, and “at least one year competitive esports experience.” Most of the respondents seemed to perceive the job as a chance to hang out and play games for a living. Amid the lackluster pool of candidates, the video-game geographer Madison Marquer stood out.

Marquer had figured his odds were good, since surely there couldn’t be that many other grown-ups with master’s degrees willing to accept $15,000 a year. But he went all out getting ready for his May interview anyway, heeding his father’s advice to wear the coat and tie that had been moldering in his closet. In front of the search committee, he spoke eloquently about how he’d been shaped by gaming, dating back to the hot summer nights he’d stayed up late eating popsicles and playing Legend of Zelda with his mother. And he made the case that esports could help transform Wyoming by giving its aimless gamers the discipline, camaraderie, and sense of purpose they needed to claw their way to richer lives. He fielded every follow-up question with ease, betraying no hint of the crushing sadness that had pervaded his life for more than a year.

Aware that their salary offer was a piddling sum, the search committee mentioned to Marquer that he’d be considered for full-time employment if he performed admirably for a year. Marquer was fine with that arrangement; he was so committed to creating the LCCC esports program that he planned to move back in with his parents in Cheyenne to save money.

Marquer’s official start date was June 1. That gave him less than 12 weeks to assemble a team, a formidable task given that most recent high school graduates already had plans for the fall. So he resorted to a DIY tactic from his punk days: He printed up a stack of posters, headlined with the slogan “GET IN THE GAME,” and put them up at local businesses and on bulletin boards near campus. Unbeknownst to Marquer, though, word of the team’s formation had already been circulating around Cheyenne for some time. 

Madison Marquer plays drums in his band Stay Awhile, a tattoo of Wyoming’s state flower on his shin.

Photograph: Shawn Bush

Travis Jones never thought of himself as college material. He stopped showing up for school midway though the 10th grade, having realized he could no longer pretend to care about reading novels or memorizing the root causes of wars. His worried parents switched him to an online academy, hoping he’d perform better if allowed to learn at his own pace. But by the end of his junior year in 2019, Jones had washed out of virtual school too. The gentle-natured teen then began cycling through a series of dreary, low-wage gigs in Cheyenne—unloading freight at Dillard’s, sorting goods at Walmart, delivering pizzas for Domino’s. He spent much of his meager earnings on his two most cherished pastimes: using mail-order parts and instructional YouTube videos to assemble homebrew PCs, and playing Call of Duty at a downtown Cheyenne gaming café called the Annex.

A sliver of a storefront wedged between a computer repair shop and Cheeks Beauty Academy, the Annex is Cheyenne’s gaming mecca. The café hosts weekly tournaments with small cash prizes and stays open until 1 am on the weekends to cater to young locals who prefer mowing down virtual enemies to beer-fueled revelry. Jones started hanging out there soon after the Annex opened in the spring of 2021. He was drawn in by Austin Vina­tieri, who ran special events at the café; the two had been teammates on a semipro Call of Duty squad funded by a local hip hop producer. 

Vinatieri was a guy who’d organized his late teens and early twenties around mastering Call of Duty, working sporadic hours at Pizza Hut and the Frontier Mall to suit his gaming schedule. “Esports is something that you have to chase; you can’t chase it half-heartedly,” says Vinatieri, a tall and gangly bundle of energy who’s notably more extroverted than the stereotypical gamer. “You have to put your all into it, because it really does require that level of effort.” He gradually ascended the leaderboards at GameBattles, a platform that hosts semipro tournaments, hoping to impress pro scouts from the 12-team Call of Duty League.

But even at his competitive zenith, Vinatieri had never earned more than $500 a week from gaming. Now 26, married, and the father of an infant daughter, Vinatieri had finally begun to contemplate the steps he needed to take to become a responsible adult. When he read a Facebook post about LCCC’s nascent esports team in the spring of 2021, however, he decided to take one last crack at his dream. He figured that if he could captain a squad that would dominate on the junior college circuit, he might catch the eye of a major four-year program, a Call of Duty esports behemoth like Concord University or Sheridan College. And Vinatieri believed he’d then be primed to make the leap to a Call of Duty League team like the Los Angeles Guerrillas or Florida Mutineers, which routinely draw hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers as they compete for $5 million in prize money per season. (The Guerrillas share an owner with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, the reigning Super Bowl champions.)

Even before LCCC finished its search for a coach, Vina­tieri had enrolled in the school’s summer session. And as soon as Marquer was hired, Vinatieri emailed the new coach to explain his plan: cajole gamers in his orbit to join him at the college. At the top of Vinatieri’s list was his former teammate Travis Jones, whom he had nicknamed “the Human Turret” for how doggedly he defended his turf in Call of Duty.

Jones was a week into a new, entry-level warehouse job at UPS when Vinatieri told him about esports at LCCC. “I thought he was messing with me,” Jones says. “Getting a scholarship to play a video game was almost unreal.” Given his miserable academic history, Jones had qualms about attempting the jump to college. But he was also desperate for a new direction: He could easily see himself in 10 years, stuck on a loading dock among fellow dropouts and wondering where the time had gone. And so he agreed to go with Vinatieri to LCCC for an esports audition.

Marquer arranged for the tryout at the team’s new home venue, a dimly lit computer lab festooned with images of the school’s mascot and athletic namesake, the Golden Eagle. He had yet to stock the team with much talent, and he had high hopes for the duo from the Annex. The two aspiring student-athletes donned their headphones and fired up Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, a game set in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

As in all Call of Duty titles, success in Cold War depends on a player’s ability to predict opponents’ behavior. The action unfolds in digital facsimiles of places like Moscow and the Nicaraguan jungle, all filled with labyrinthine buildings and narrow corridors that elite gamers memorize down to the inch. Detailed knowledge of those virtual maps is what allows players to dash to spots where they believe they might achieve the element of surprise. As soon as a foe comes peeling around a corner, the aggressor has roughly two-tenths of a second to fire their weapon with pinpoint accuracy; if they fail to score the kill and can’t immediately readjust, they’re liable to become prey themselves.

Watching Jones and Vinatieri slash their way through Cold War maps, Marquer realized he had two potential stars on his hands. The diminutive Jones, whose wiry chinstrap beard gives him a slightly Amish mien, was a particular revelation: The Human Turret had a gift for detecting opponents who tried to assault his position from sneaky angles. In the thousands of hours he’d spent playing and studying video games, Marquer had rarely encountered a player so blessed with spatial awareness.

As soon as the tryout was over, Marquer offered both men scholarships that would defray much of the school’s $4,612 tuition. Jones was elated but didn’t tell Marquer he was technically ineligible to attend LCCC. Aware that this was likely his only shot at earning a degree, he resolved to get his high school diploma, via online classes, quickly—no matter how many late nights he had to put in after his UPS shifts.

Vinatieri also introduced Marquer to another prodigy from the Annex, 19-year-old Enrique Tail. A veteran of Halo tournaments throughout the West, Tail had long felt he’d been born to solve the intellectual challenges of first-person shooters. “Even if it was a game of tag, you know, I’d strategize if I was at the playground—like, how to get here or there without getting tagged,” he says. “In video games, I feel like I was more organized, more able to get around by flanking.” But college hadn’t been in Tail’s plans. He’d thought about joining the Marines after he graduated but decided to pursue gaming instead. Marquer took an instant shine to the shy and sensitive Tail, who he thought might be a lost soul in need of guidance. He gave the teen the sweetest scholarship deal he would offer to any Golden Eagle.

The last of Vinatieri’s recruits was Jordan Vestal, a Call of Duty ace who worked for a logistics company in Chicago. But the aloof and ultracompetitive Vestal had no interest in moving to Wyoming, and Marquer was reluctant to take on a remote student who clearly prioritized gaming over academics: He didn’t want the team to feel like a collection of mercenaries. But he also knew that, like any coach, he’d ultimately be judged by wins and losses. So he made a place on the team for Vestal, an avid Twitch streamer under the handle “ChiraQ.”

News of the team began to spread beyond Vinatieri’s circles. Andy Santhuff, from the town of Green River in the southwestern corner of the state, had been a soccer standout in high school, a spry midfielder with birdlike legs who seemed destined to play at the next level. But late in his senior season he suffered a devastating shoulder injury that ended his career. The son of a sodium bicarbonate miner, he was resigned to being trapped in Green River—until his girlfriend, an LCCC student, told him about the esports team. Santhuff called Marquer to arrange an in-person tryout, which meant a 275-mile drive to Cheyenne. After Santhuff demonstrated his mastery of Rocket League, a game in which cars smash balls into soccer nets, Marquer offered him scholarship funding on the spot.

As the first day of classes approached in late August, the team’s roster swelled to 17 athletes; all guys, some already going into their second year at LCCC. Their ranks now included a jovial, thickly bearded Valorant player from the heart of Wyoming’s coal country, a reedy distance runner with flowing blond hair whose parents had been the only doctors in the town of Sundance, and a former Christian missionary who drove a Walmart forklift on the side. Soon Marquer found himself working upwards of 50 hours a week, helping students fill out financial aid forms and figuring out the minutiae of livestreaming matches from the lab.

Just days before the close of LCCC’s registration period, Travis Jones finally passed the last of his high school exams and earned his diploma. Now, instead of loading boxes onto trucks, he was set to spend the next two years playing Call of Duty and majoring in information technology.

Horses at Laramie County Community College, which is known for its rodeo team. 

Photograph: Shawn Bush

Above: Coach Marquer (right) with the Vanguard squad (from left): Travis Jones, Isiaha Ahrens, Andrew Santhuff, and Ethan Krolikowski.

Photograph: Shawn Bush

From the start, Marquer tried to instill a sense of rigor in his athletes. He divided the team into seven squads, each dedicated to a specific game: Valorant, Super Smash Bros., Hearthstone, Rocket League, Call of Duty: Gunfight, Call of Duty: Warzone, and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. Those squads would be led by team captains who had to make sure their members practiced at least 10 hours a week. Depending on the game, practices might consist of video analysis, strategy discussions, or weapons training. There was also a mandatory team meeting every Monday, a gym requirement, and an obligation to lend a hand at other LCCC sporting events. (When a group of gamers was assigned to retrieve balls for the soccer team, one of them quivered with amazement upon catching an errant strike behind the goal; he confided to Marquer that he’d never touched a soccer ball before.)

Team members also had to maintain a 2.0 grade average to compete—an LCCC rule for varsity athletes that Marquer hoped would keep his gamers focused on their studies. Instead, it created a host of problems before the season even began.

On the eve of the Golden Eagles’ September 20 debut match, Marquer lost nearly a quarter of his team; four of 17 gamers had already fallen well short of the required C average. Among the casualties was Vinatieri, who’d flunked a class during the summer session and hadn’t been able to dig himself out. He had a decent excuse: Right after enrolling at LCCC, he’d found out that his wife was pregnant with their second child. But Vinatieri was still upset with himself for botching his latest attempt to become a Call of Duty pro. He promised the three Cold War teammates he’d left behind—Jones, Tail, and Vestal—that he’d help in any way he could.

Somehow the team didn’t crater. An emergency sub slid into Vinatieri’s spot, and the Cold War unit didn’t miss a beat. They opened the first-semester season with a shutout win against Hutchinson Community College from Kansas. Santhuff and the Rocket League squad started off strong, too, winning their first two matches. By the beginning of October, the LCCC team’s record was 7-3, a tally that included a thrilling Super Smash Bros. victory against an Alabama college that went down to the final fight.

Marquer could tell where he’d have to concentrate his efforts. His gamers clearly didn’t need much help when they were in front of their PCs, but many of them couldn’t handle the basic obligations of life outside the lab. Some of his more scholarly athletes shared his frustration: “I don’t think some kids understand that, actually, you have to do stuff in college,” Santhuff griped to me as I began to follow the Golden Eagles closely last fall. He was peeved at teammates who either cut classes or neglected their homework, two decisions that placed them in danger of losing their athletic eligibility. Marquer assigned the flailing students to participate in mandatory study tables and nudged them to use the athletic department’s tutors.

“I know you’re getting overwhelmed, but let’s take baby steps,” Marquer would tell players. “Like, get off your game right now and just put in an hour of work.” But even when the athletes were receptive to that advice, it wouldn’t necessarily stick. “I think it makes them feel good for a day,” he told me. “But it wouldn’t be enough to, like, get them to keep going.” As some gamers ignored his advice and tumbled into the academic abyss, he began to feel like Sisyphus.

Marquer was also flummoxed by some of his athletes’ inability to control their emotions. Having grown up playing in isolation with little adult supervision, these athletes hadn’t developed some of the skills that their peers in other sports learned in Little League or CYO basketball: how to forgive yourself for errors, how to respect your opponents, how to lose with grace. When one of his players stormed out of the lab in a rage after several disappointing Rocket League matches, Marquer was horrified. When confronted about the outbursts later, the gamer insisted that he was a born winner who could never lose. After repeatedly violating Marquer’s rules, the player was cut.

Marquer despaired that he couldn’t stop his most troubled gamers from wasting an opportunity they lacked the clarity or maturity to appreciate. Yet he was buoyed by occasional signs that his efforts weren’t in vain. When Travis Jones started to falter in his networking class, Marquer reminded him that he’d miss out on matches unless he improved. “So I got down and got my grade up,” Jones told me. “If I have a failing grade, I can’t play that game next week, right? That’s a huge, huge thing for me.”

Inside the LCCC computer lab.

Photograph: Shawn Bush

For all their difficulties balancing the realities of college life, the Golden Eagles remained a force in the virtual realm: The team finished its first-semester season with 46 wins and 16 losses. The Cold War squad was the standout. It lost just one match out of 11, and all of its victories were routs. True to his word, Austin Vinatieri had kept advising the team, despite taking a new job in the IT department of a crypto startup around the corner from the Annex. He downloaded bird’s-eye views of all the Cold War maps and annotated them with a screen marker, finding routes the squad could use to outmaneuver their opponents. He designed one play, for example, in which the team split into three units that precisely rotated through a section of the landscape where their shooters were always well concealed. “That very next day, as soon as they go into the map, they executed it so perfectly,” he says. “And it was kind of like one of the proudest things I’ve ever seen.”

The Cold War squad earned a place in that semester’s eight-team national playoffs, to start on December 3. They breezed through the opening round, smashing Hutchinson Community College once again. Championship glory was just two matches away. But at the worst possible moment, the team began to fall apart.

The national semifinal, against Texas’ Navarro College, was to be held on December 9. But on December 8, Enrique Tail announced that he wouldn’t be able to play; he’d been given a conflicting shift at his job at Walmart; Andy Santhuff, whose Rocket League squad had recently flamed out in part due to his teammates’ academic issues, volunteered to step into the breach. Then, with just an hour to go until game time, Marquer got a disturbing message from Jordan Vestal, the Cold War player in Chicago. Vestal said he was in the hospital. He pleaded with Marquer to figure out a way to reschedule the match. But schools have to give at least 24 hours’ notice before any postponements. The semifinal would go on.

Marquer scrounged up a last-minute sub from another squad, but that player had a cast on one of his arms. With half its starting lineup out of commission, the Cold War squad was thumped by Navarro. The next day, Vestal posted a one-line message to the Cold War squad’s Discord channel: “Guys, I’m sorry.” After that, Marquer tried to contact him a number of times to check on his health, but all of his texts and voicemails went unanswered. Marquer never heard from Vestal again—the Chicagoan, who kept streaming on Twitch, dropped out of LCCC without saying goodbye to anyone.

With the first-semester season over, Marquer sat down to figure out who would be eligible to compete in the spring. As he reviewed everyone’s transcripts, he discovered that four of his remaining 12 athletes had blown off their finals; their grade point averages were all below 1.0. Among the four was Tail, who’d felt lost from the start in the school’s tough information technology program. (Marquer had encouraged him to look at other majors, like art.) With little prospect of being able to compete in esports for the rest of the year, Tail relinquished his scholarship and turned his attention to chasing a pro career.

Marquer used the winter break to recover from exhaustion. In addition to straining to keep the team together, he’d been substitute-teaching at several Cheyenne schools to make extra cash. He was still committed to the college’s esports program, still certain it could help Wyoming kids achieve more for themselves than they’d ever thought possible. But when I connected with him just before Christmas, I noticed that his disposition was less sunny than usual.

“I knew what I was getting into, so I can’t really complain too much about this year,” he told me. But he admitted he was sick of being broke. He had also come to feel generally neglected by LCCC, which seemed indifferent to its new esports program. That semester, for example, several members of his team had expressed a desire to practice early in the morning, before the computer lab was unlocked around 10:30 am. But despite repeated attempts, Marquer couldn’t convince anyone in the administration to give him a key.

At times, a sense of defeat was hard to stave off. Just three years earlier, Marquer had been married to a woman he loved so much that he’d hatched a multiyear plan in part to save her. Now, that love had been replaced by an echoing grief that still occasionally became loud enough to overwhelm him. He’d recently started dating someone new—the guitarist for a punk band called Prowler—but it was tough to make a romance work as a nearly 30-year-old man who was stuck in his childhood bedroom. And then, of course, there was his inability to protect so many of his athletes from their worst impulses. With his team reeling from its setbacks, Marquer felt like he was navigating without any kind of map.

Madison Marquer by the stables at Laramie County Community College.

Photograph: Shawn Bush

Basketball is close to a religion in Isiaha Ahrens’ family. So his relatives were shocked and displeased when he abruptly gave up the sport as a high school junior to concentrate on Call of Duty, a game he’d been playing since the age of 3. “They thought it was a stupid move,” Ahrens says. “But I told them, like, just trust me. Like, I’m really good at this game, I need you guys to believe in me and it will work.”

Ahrens wasted little time proving his point. A year after dropping basketball, he became the first student in the history of Cheyenne Central High School to earn an esports scholarship. His destination was Ottawa University, a small Baptist institution in eastern Kansas known for having the nation’s most storied Call of Duty team. When Ahrens signed his letter of intent in April 2021, the school’s top Call of Duty squad was ranked No. 1 in the country; its B team was ranked No. 2. With his eye on turning pro, Ahrens could not have landed in a better collegiate situation.

But after just a few weeks on the Ottawa campus, Ahrens started thinking about going home. Aside from missing his family, he was also put off by aspects of the team’s hypercompetitive attitude. “It was definitely tough playing in those tournaments, because they were for a lot of money—like, thousands of dollars,” he says. “Even though it was college, the money you got from the tournaments was money you were allowed to keep. So everyone was really trying to get those spots to be on the team so they could win that money.” Ahrens often felt peer-pressured to cut classes so he could attend daily practices that lasted for hours.

Finally, he decided he’d be better off living at home and playing Call of Duty with the new LCCC team. And he’d start in the spring semester. Marquer was ecstatic: Having a player with that sort of pedigree was a coup for LCCC. Ahrens would slot into the Call of Duty squad, where only Jones remained from the original lineup. They would be playing Vanguard, the new World War II–themed title that had replaced Cold War in the franchise. Santhuff was picked to be the third member of the Vanguard unit. The fourth was an aspiring police officer named Ethan Krolikowski, who’d played Valorant in the team’s first semester.

Marquer promoted Jones to squad captain, a weighty responsibility for a guy who’d once vanished from the 10th grade. Marquer also decided to reallocate the departed players’ scholarships to the remaining athletes, offering an extra $500 or $1,000 per player to help with books and board. Jones was particularly grateful for the extra money, which allowed him to trim back his hours as a Walmart delivery driver. “Financial stress has been a thing for me, from my teenage years,” he says. Without the scholarship, he adds, “I don’t think I would have been able to be a full-time esport player and go to school.”

Though Jones’ Vanguard team wasn’t as experienced as the Cold War unit that had made the national semifinals in the fall, its four members were more ­serious-minded than their predecessors. They started practicing right after New Year’s—Jones tracked their training on a shared spreadsheet—and they rapidly honed their ability to intuit one another’s positions within the game’s maps, a rapport essential to dodging traps and encircling foes. It was clear to anyone who watched their preseason scrimmages that they were going to be a force.

The opening Vanguard match took place on Valentine’s Day, and nearly the whole team turned out for the occasion, gathering around Marquer’s workstation in the back of the LCCC computer lab. Pitted against a rural Montana school with fewer than 400 full-time students, the Wyoming squad fell behind early in the best-of-five match. That first round took place in a Call of Duty map that was largely unfamiliar to them, a South Pacific island studded with palm trees and bombed-out ruins, and they initially stumbled into several ambushes. But they adjusted their tactics within minutes, determined where their opponents liked to hide out, and worked in sync to sow confusion by attacking from multiple angles. After coming back to tie the opening battle at 105 points apiece, they dominated the rest of the way to earn a 3-0 victory.

None of the team members lingered in the lab to savor the triumph. As he packed up his gear, Jones explained that he had a bunch of homework to complete for his classes on IP security and server installation. He didn’t want to fall behind—especially since that might risk wrecking his squad’s chances of winning the national title that had eluded them in the fall.

The spring season was not without its glitches. In late February, the Golden Eagles narrowly won a match against Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg Area Community College, but league officials voided the result, ruling that a brief server issue had affected the outcome. A rattled LCCC then lost the rematch in a blowout. The next week, Andy Santhuff had to return to Green River for a family emergency, and the team flubbed a contest against Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in his absence.

But on more than one occasion, the brilliance of Isiaha Ahrens saved the Golden Eagles from racking up a third loss and missing out on the spring semester playoffs. He proved to be one of the best pure gunfighters in the entire league, capable of picking off even the most agile targets while leaping into the air or sprinting across a courtyard. In addition to putting the Vanguard team on his back, he also excelled at Call of Duty: Warzone, a ­battle royale game in which dozens of players fight until the last one’s standing. He and a player named Sam Devine operated as a duo in the game; the longer each one lasted, the better their cumulative score.

By going undefeated after the Northeastern Oklahoma debacle, the Vanguard team squeaked into the playoffs as the sixth seed. That meant they would have to knock off the top three teams in the country to win the title. Undaunted, Jones scheduled a grueling series of scrimmages to prepare. He insisted the team play again and again on two maps, one of Berlin and another of a Tuscan village. He knew the two would feature in the playoff matches; each bullet-torn shutter, every pixelated cobblestone had to be so ingrained in the gamers’ psyches that they could navigate by instinct.

The team was anxious going into the opening round on April 22. Their opponents, from Sumter, South Carolina, scored 35 points before the Golden Eagles notched even one. But once the butterflies subsided, the comeback was on: LCCC ended up winning 3-0, thanks in large part to the uncanny marksmanship of Ahrens and Jones.

On April 26, feeling unusually confident, Ahrens competed in the NJCAAE’s Warzone championship; he and Devine formed one of the 25 duos in the three-game final. (There were no preliminary rounds for Warzone; any NJCAAE team could compete, regardless of how they’d performed during the regular season.) Ahrens and Devine smashed the competition, but it took a while for league officials to calculate and confirm final scores. So the Wyomingites kept their emotions in check and ordered Domino’s. The final verdict finally came down at 9:15 pm, well after the lab had emptied of other students: Ahrens and Devine had taken first place, nearly doubling the runner-up duo’s total score. They whooped at the top of their lungs and jigged around the vacant rows of PCs. It was LCCC’s first national title in any sport since 1992.

Three days later, the Vanguard team faced Harrisburg once again, now in the semifinals. The Golden Eagles were still bitter over the technical dispute—the faulty server—that had cost them a mid-season win. They came in determined for revenge, and got it: The match ended in another 3-0 romp for LCCC. Now they had a date in the championship against the top seed, Gogebic Community College from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Hours before that final match, on May 1, Jones was at home, throwing up. “I’m here dying,” he wrote to the team’s Discord channel. He wasn’t sure if it was a stomach bug or raw anxiety. He briefly thought about playing from home. But his internet connection wasn’t dependable enough—at such a high Call of Duty level, a few microseconds of lag can doom even the most skilled player. So the ailing captain forced himself to drive to campus to join his teammates.

All of the Golden Eagles’ hard work did them little good against Gogebic, another team from a frigid, remote corner of America: The Michigan players maneuvered with such grace and speed that they occasionally seemed to be capable of warping time. LCCC managed to steal one round, but the final 3-1 score was a fair reflection of how thoroughly they’d been thumped. The LCCC athletes pushed away from their keyboards and gave each other tepid fist bumps as they tried to mask their hurt; Santhuff was so stung by the loss he said he felt an urge to bash his head through a wall. 

This time, the team hung around the lab after the match, wallowing in the dejection of missing out on the league’s ultimate prize. Marquer bought two extra-large pizzas and delivered an old-fashioned pep talk. “We didn’t get this victory today, but you are all still victorious,” he said as the athletes downed slices in the kitchen. “You all are so hungry and talented that even though you didn’t get it this time, it’s just something to look forward to next semester when we come back and wipe ’em.”

Then Marquer started talking about what lay ahead. Ahrens, Jones, and Santhuff were all on track to be back in the fall, and Marquer stressed that they’d soon have to ponder their post-LCCC options. If they could stay in the hunt for national Call of Duty titles, big universities might come calling with scholarship offers—an outcome that Jones, in particular, would have thought impossible the previous May, when he didn’t even have a high school diploma to his name.

Marquer did not mention his own status for the next semester, which had yet to be resolved. His contract was set to expire in a month, and he still hadn’t heard whether he’d be offered a full-time position. But after winning one national championship and coming so close to a second, he figured his case was strong.

The next Friday, Marquer was leaving the college cafeteria after lunch when he spotted the administrator who was his contact for discussing next year’s employment. He asked her whether she’d heard anything about his job. She hesitated, then suggested that they meet in her office in an hour.

The school’s hiring board, he says she explained, didn’t feel it possessed enough data to determine the esports program’s utility to the college. So it couldn’t justify offering Marquer a full-time coaching position, or any sort of increased compensation. His $15,000-a-year contract would automatically renew in early June, and they would try to have another conversation about his future in the spring of 2023. The process was over, the decision was final.

Marquer was bewildered, not least because of something he’d noticed driving onto campus that day. The huge electronic sign outside the front entrance bore a message that read, “CONGRATULATIONS ESPORTS TEAM. NJCAAE CALL OF DUTY: WARZONE NATIONAL CHAMPIONS.”

In the months I’d been talking to Marquer, he’d assured me time and again that he was confident he’d be coaching the Golden Eagles for years to come. He wanted to stick it out because of his connection to Wyoming, a place he loves so much that he has its state flower, the Indian paintbrush, tattooed on his left shin. “I know there’s a massive youth exodus in this state,” Marquer told me over coffee in February. “I want more young people to stay here. I take a lot of pride in the people that are here, and I know the gamers are good especially because it’s so cold. So I just know that I can build it from here.” But the school’s indifference to his devotion and his financial desperation had finally become too much to bear. As much as he wanted to be a rock for Wyoming’s gamers, he just couldn’t do it anymore.

When Marquer told his athletes about his impending departure, they were perplexed that the school had such paltry respect for a coach who’d altered the course of their lives. “I was a little shocked that they didn’t try and give him some type of recognition,” says Travis Jones. “But I’m happy for him, because that means he’ll get what he deserves. He deserves to get paid.” The college has told the team nothing about its plans, and it’s not clear whether it will hire a new coach in time to recruit fresh talent for the fall. With no guidance from above, Jones has assumed sole responsibility for the Vanguard squad: He has arranged a busy summer schedule filled with practices and tournaments, which he’ll fit in while working as a DoorDash driver and assembling his sixth homebrew PC.

The last time I spoke to Marquer about his plans, he was driving his girlfriend’s band to a show in Casper. Marquer has also gotten back to playing music himself, holding down guitar and drums, respectively, in two bands called Dirt Sucker and Stay Awhile. (The latter is named after a prominent character’s catchphrase in the early-2000s video game Diablo II.)

From the road, Marquer told me that, after much deliberation, he was leaning toward looking for another job in high school or junior college esports outside Wyoming. “It’s an incredible opportunity to be on the front lines of something that I’m lucky to know about,” he said. He and his girlfriend are willing to leave the state, and they’ve been talking about starting a family in the not too distant future. So he plans to look for a coaching position in a place where they might be able to afford a house someday. Based on his initial perusal of job boards, there are plenty of openings for those willing to relocate to far-flung locales: He says he found one opening in rural Wisconsin, for example, that offers a starting salary of $5,000 a month. With so many possible paths sprawled out before him, Marquer’s future is, for the first time in a long while, shaping up to be more than it seemed.


Cover: Styling by Jeanne Yang and Chloe Takayanagi. Styling assistance by Ella Harrington. Grooming by April Bautista using Oribe at Dew Beauty Agency. Prop styling by Chloe Kirk.

This article appears in the July/August 2022 issue.Subscribe now.

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