It was at the University of Utah where Nintendo of America President Doug Bowser cultivated a love for video games that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would set him on his career path.

"I plugged endless quarters into the Donkey Kong arcade cabinet and it was all about having 'Doug' and you can only have three letters, it was 'D-U-G' on that five-person leaderboard and I was endlessly plugging away," Bowser said. "Maybe that was my first introduction to competitive gaming."

On Friday, Bowser returned to his alma mater to help kick off the Ken Garff eSports Spring Celebration at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, much to the delight of a raucous crowd of around 2,000 middle and high school students, educators and coaches.

Despite what appears as a logical association to make, Bowser shares no relation with the Nintendo villain who goes by the same name.

"I like to say I had it (the name) longer than the character, although we tend to share it, I think, fairly well," Bowser said.

Perhaps less surprising but serendipitous nonetheless is that the celebration was held on National Mario Day (MAR10), an ode to Nintendo's trademark character and star of many people's favorite video games.

The theme for the event was "Through and Beyond Gaming," a nod to the way esports — with its growing popularity — is promoting STEAM (science, technical, engineering, arts and math) programs to middle school and high school students.

"Gaming is growing at a record pace. In fact — fun fact for you — video games is now the largest form of entertainment in the world," Bowser said. "You're part of something that is huge and growing and has global reach overall."

Bowser said that he is a testament to the longevity of video games. From an undergraduate gamer at the U. 43 years ago to a grandfather who is about to introduce his granddaughter to video games, he is "living proof" that video games are not only maintaining relevancy but growing in popularity.

Attendees cheer for their favorite video game at the Ken Garff Esports Spring Celebration 2023 at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday.
Attendees cheer for their favorite video game at the Ken Garff Esports Spring Celebration 2023 at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

According to Insider Intelligence, viewing figures for esports in the U.S. have grown year over year since 2018 when U.S. esports viewing figures totaled 25.7 million. This grew to 30.3 million in 2019, 34.8 million in 2020 and this year, that number is set to climb to 46.2 million.

With a focus not just on competitive gaming but also STEAM concepts, Friday's workshops and competitions covered many bases, including:

  • Coding
  • Esports – Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Rocket League
  • Digital media and photography
  • Virtual reality
  • Jersey design
  • Mathematics
  • Engineering
  • Cyber security
  • Shout-casting

Ivan Perez, a junior at West Jordan High School who was in attendance at the Huntsman Center, said he was most looking forward to meeting Bowser.

"I've just been a really big fan of Nintendo my whole life ... I just want to meet Doug Bowser," Perez said.

West Jordan junior Zach Marsh said he was looking at the event as a great way to meet new people and enjoy playing video games with his friends.

Both Marsh and Perez said that their favorite game is Super Smash Bros, though Marsh's main competitive game is Rocket League.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson speaks at the Ken Garff Esports Spring Celebration 2023 at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday.
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson speaks at the Ken Garff Esports Spring Celebration 2023 at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

"Esports is definitely worth it. It helped me improve my grades, it helped me meet new people, meet new friends and honestly just have fun overall," Perez said.

Along with Bowser, Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson was on hand to welcome esports athletes from across the Beehive State to the Huntsman Center and deliver messages of encouragement.

"What I see is the face of our future. You're our future innovators, our future experts, future engineers, future cyber security experts (and) our future leaders," Henderson said.

Additionally, Bowser echoed the sentiments of Utah's lieutenant governor.

"We in gaming and in broader technology absolutely need you. We need your fresh minds, we need your voices, we need people who are going to be a part of something really fun, really new and really exciting so keep doing everything you're doing," Bowser said.