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Long hours lead to first place for MU engineers at programming competition

Anthony Verslues (left) and Danny Franklin, both MU engineering seniors, won first place at the MegaMinerAI 8: BotNet competition at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in November.

Video gamers have more than an adequate knowledge how to “play against the computer.” Two Mizzou Engineering students took their programming knowledge and used it to earn first place in a competition last fall.

Seniors Danny Franklin and Anthony Verslues weren’t sure they were going to go through with the 24-hour MegaMiner Aritificial Intelligence competition at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla until the morning of the event.

“We drove to McDonald’s, and I turned to Anthony and said, ‘We can turn back if we want to,’” Franklin, a computer science and electrical engineering student, said.

The MegaMinerAI 8: BotNet competition is held twice a year at Missouri S&T, featuring local and regional programmers who enjoy the challenges that come from programming, gaming, creating artificial intelligence and pulling an all-nighter.

Franklin heard about the competition through one of the event organizers, whom he had met while working as an intern with Garmin — a competition sponsor — over the summer. Knowing he’d need a teammate, he recruited Verslues, a fellow electrical engineering student, to compete with him.

Participants competed in teams of two to three people. Event organizers created a game and teams created AI programs that worked as players. The game featured in this competition, called BotNet, used bases on a grid where bases sent out “viruses” — which Franklin and Verslues likened to chess pawns — that captured one square on the grid with each turn. Once a virus occupied a square, that square remained in possession of that team unless it was taken over by a virus from the opposing team. The team with the most squares after 500 turns won that game.

“It was a bit daunting when they first told us about the game,” Franklin said.

Anthony Verslues (left) and Danny Franklin, concentrate on their artificial intelligence program at the MegaMinerAI 8: BotNet compeition. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Gardner)

The bracket-style tournament featured two divisions: a student bracket, exclusive to undergraduates, and a non-student bracket, which included graduate students, alumni, industry members and other participants. Teams advanced through the competition based on the number of wins. But even as teams’ programs were playing the game, team members worked through the night to improve their programs.

“As the night went on, we’d update,” Verslues said. Their team, The Rainmakers, would practice new versions of their program by testing it against older versions.

Eventually, the competition made its way to double- and, later, single-elimination games. As their program kept winning, however, Franklin’s and Verslues’ hopes rose.

“We were pretty confident we were going to win the student bracket,” Franklin said.

And they did. In the final hours of the competition, The Rainmakers, as the winners of the student bracket, faced off against the winning team from the non-student bracket. At that point, they had been in the competition for more than 12 hours.

“We were a little burned out,” Verslues said, estimating they had worked 18-19 hours total throughout the competition.

A phone call let them know they had won. Franklin’s friend who first told him about the competition called him as the last few turns occurred.

“He was like, ‘Hey, you’re losing… oh wait, now you’re winning. You won,’” Franklin said.

Both said they were astonished by the victory, which earned them a $90 prize, a Garmin GPS unit and bragging rights.

“I was surprised we beat the non-student bracket team,” Franklin said.

This is the eighth MegaMiner competition MS&T has organized. The contest lasted from noon Nov. 12 to noon Nov. 13. Kansas City-based Tradebot Systems, a financial market analysis firm, also sponsored the competition.