As UCF approaches its inaugural season as the youngest member of a Power 5 conference, the athletics department is taking a look back to commemorate this special moment in history. The following feature is a part of UCF’s 12 for XII series — 12 stories that define UCF and the meteoric rise of the Knights in their journey to the Big 12 Conference.

This feature was originally published Oct. 12, 2022 in the lead up to the UCF football team’s sixth space game. It is included in the 12 for XII series because it captures the role space and space research has played in the university’s story. The seventh installment of the annual Space Game will be held on Nov. 11, 2023, when UCF hosts Oklahoma State.

It’s Oct. 4, 2022 — less than 10 days away from the UCF football team’s Space Game, and although the order was placed back in March, the Knights’ uniforms have yet to arrive.

“Every day I wake up with anxiety,” says Brad Anderson, director of equipment operations. “Especially with how much this fan base, the players, the coaching staff, the community all love the Space Game — it can’t not happen.”

Twenty-four hours later, the uniforms start to arrive and a collective sigh of relief can be felt throughout the UCF Athletics Association (UCFAA) administration buildings; from the equipment room to the AD’s office to the cubicles that house the #brand designers who created the uniforms and the brand experience staff charged with the in-stadium experience.

So what exactly does it take to pull off the Space Game every year?

A lot of planning and a little bit of stardust.

A football player jumping while holding a football
The 2023 Space Game uniform

More Than a Gimmick

Picture this.

The UCF football team just thumped Georgia Tech, 27-10. Thousands of fans are still glued to their seats in FBC Mortgage Stadium. Then, along the horizon in the eastern evening sky, it appears.

An orange flare — the unmistakable streak of the SpaceX Falcon 9 Starlink darting upward and out of the atmosphere.

The PA cues up Elton John’s 1972 hit “Rocket Man.” Everyone starts singing along.

There’s no denying it. This is SpaceU.

With the university’s origin directly tied to supporting the space program in the 1960s, it’s easy to understand why this week’s Space Game means so much to the university, the athletics program and its fans.

UCF’s win against Temple on October 13, 2022 marked the sixth installment of the game and the fifth anniversary of the first full SpaceU uniform — which went on to win the 2018 Uniform of the Year.

Along the way, the Knights have picked up more uniform accolades (the 2019 Helmet of the Year and 2021 Uniform of the Year) and space-inspired games and gear have now spread across all Knights’ teams. Coincidentally space travel has become cool again, and other schools are following suit with their own takes on the initiative.

Perhaps, most importantly, UCF has continued its strong tradition of conducting important space research — from producing its own simulated Martian soil to more than a dozen projects aimed at getting people back to the moon safely, many of which directly support NASA’s Artemis program.

It seems that in a timespan faster than the speed of light, the Space Game has become not only a fan favorite, but a nationally relevant event.

“We’ve tried to stay as authentic as possible, and I think that’s why this game has grown to be as popular as it has,” says Jimmy Skiles ’06, senior executive associate athletics director. “We aren’t using space as a gimmick or a ‘cool’ theme. This is UCF’s story. And every year we’re getting better at telling it.”

All-in On Outer Space

Although the Space Game debuted in 2017, the concept for the game was first discussed in 2014 when Skiles re-joined the UCFAA as assistant athletic director for fan development. He says he batted around the idea with some of his creative and brand experience colleagues, but they felt the timing wasn’t quite right.

That changed in 2016 when a new uniform line was unveiled, and excitement renewed around UCF football with the hiring of Scott Frost as head coach.

“It’s a unique part of the UCF story that it was too good of an opportunity not to use the athletics platform to amplify,” Skiles says.

UCF’s proximity to the Space Coast and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center has allowed the university to cultivate and provide talent for Central Florida and the growing U.S. space program for decades. Nearly 30% of Kennedy Space Center employees graduated from UCF, which has long been the top supplier of aerospace and defense graduates in the nation.

A student prepares to look through a telescope outside the Robinson Observatory on UCF’s main campus.

You can see the rings of Saturn and more from the Robinson Observatory on campus. Two UCF grads have gone on to become astronauts. We have a space podcast. The 50-yard line at the football stadium lines up on the same latitude as NASA’s historical Launch Complex 39A by design. The Knights’ throwback mascot, the Citronaut — which appeared on the 1969 student handbook — is an orange-astronaut hybrid.

Many of UCF’s faculty and researchers are NASA veterans and hail from some of the biggest, most important programs in U.S. space history. Seventeen UCF researchers have asteroids named after them, and UCF even has a planet named in its honor.

“Our involvement in space exploration has rocketed along since NASA provided our very first research grant. We are tremendously proud of the world-class space research carried out here — missions to the moon and the outer planets, advancing the rapidly developing space industry, designing new space instrumentation and communication, and much more,” says Michael D. Johnson, provost and vice president of academic affairs. “The annual Space Game celebrates UCF’s distinctive beginning and our simultaneously expanding prominence in space exploration and in athletics. This game reminds us that we have much to celebrate and that the best is yet to come.”

Stellar Style

A key component to the uniqueness of this annual celebration is the team’s uniforms — the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of work behind the scenes from several different departments that allows the uniforms to shine.

“I think the thing that probably would surprise most people is that we do the design work in-house,” says Emma Schneider, who served as director of #Brand design and created the 2021 and 2022 uniforms. “That’s one of the things that make it really special. It’s been my favorite project to work on, far and away. I just love seeing the whole thing start from this one concept and explode to touch every creative department within UCF, and then all the graphics and merchandising roll out that follows. As a designer, it’s the project that has everything in it and that makes it really rewarding.”

In previous years, the theme has been inspired by various milestones: the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The space shuttle. The 2022 uniforms are a nod to deep space and exoplanets. Integral to the design is exoplanet UCF 1.01, a discovery made 10 years ago by UCF alumni Kevin Stevenson ’12PhD and Nate Lust ’07 ’14PhD along with UCF Pegasus Professor Joseph Harrington.

#Content designer Josh Brdicko is originally from Iowa and has had a creative drive for as long as he can remember. When his dad brought home NCAA Football 06 one day, Brdricko and his twin brother spent the first two hours “playing” the video game by creating teams — color schemes, jersey designs, logos.

The 2018 Space Game uniform design. (Photo courtesy of UCF Athletics)

He was drawn to UCF when he saw the first SpaceU uniform in 2018. He says it was a professional goal to work with the brand and he got to live out that dream after getting hired in 2021 and collaborating this year with Schneider.

“The Space Game was a big part that made me excited to work at UCF as opposed to the other Florida schools,” Brdicko says.

Shortly after last year’s Space Game, Brdicko and Schneider, along with #content designer Sahid Alpizar (who worked with UCFAA from 2019–22), began their research for this year’s uniforms. Schneider says she felt a lot of pride in reclaiming the Uniform of the Year award last year and felt a responsibility to knock it out of the park again.

In December they presented their ideas to leadership and Anderson, who ensures the uniforms are compliant from a rules and regulations standpoint.

“Brad is just as important as us in executing the design because he knows what we can do,” Brdicko says.

“We had one idea, and he was like, ‘That’s illegal. We can’t do that,’ ” Schneider interjects with a laugh. “The stuff we design is just made in Photoshop. It takes a few clicks. He’s got to figure out how to actually make it in real life. I have no idea how he does it.”

Adds Brdicko: “The collaboration with all the departments is huge in executing this.”

From Photoshop to the Field

While there is always a lot of hype surrounding the unveiling of the Space Game uniforms, they don’t just appear game-ready. That’s where Anderson comes in.

In addition to Nike, UCF employs four different vendors to create name plates, patches, facemasks and helmet decals resulting in the finished product. Anderson is in charge of coordinating all of the moving parts, and he says it’s always a photo finish to game day.

Once the jerseys are completed and in UCF’s possession, that’s when Anderson and his equipment operations team of CJ Bates and Kenny Yerves hunkers down.

Jerseys are hung in number order. The trio meticulously checks that each name is spelled correctly. Ensure duplicate names — like Baker and Lee — have the correct first initial incorporated. Each number is placed correctly. No numbers — like 8, for instance — are flipped. Numbers match on the front, back and sleeves.

On repeat for more than 120 jerseys.

A rocket launch view from UCF's football stadium
A view of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch, as seen from the UCF Knights’ stadium in Orlando on Nov. 15, 2020. (Photo by Conor Kvatek)

Anderson will then go through a second time on his own through every single jersey to review the checklist again before they’re paired with their helmets and stocked in the locker room.

“We’re pulling 16-17-hour days, four days a week throughout the season,” Anderson says. “People get excited when they see the finished product, but it didn’t just appear. It took 20 people’s vision and hard work coming to life to get it in that player’s locker and onto the field. So seeing the team’s and fans’ reactions to the uniform is a very good moment of appreciation and satisfaction for all the work that went into it.”

That work is further rewarded by in-depth storytelling that artfully shows off every meticulous detail. The uniforms are highlighted in photo and video shoots set against incredible backdrops including the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Space View Park in Titusville and Hangar C at Cape Canaveral.

“We set a standard and expectation in the roll-out of the first full uniform in 2018 that we’ve continued to build on every year,” says Eric DeSalvo ’09, associate athletics director of #Content. “The uniforms are incredible on their own, but we wouldn’t be doing them or the team who produced them justice unless we told the story. And the story is all in the details.”

Into Orbit

Just like the uniforms, the merchandise and retail collections also are coordinated nearly a year in advance to hit the shelves in time for the game the following season.

“What’s great about it is now it’s not just Nike making the product. Nike may be the only one who has the insight of what the uniforms are going to look like, but now we have other partners, your FloGrowns, that have jumped in with the Citronaut and Space Game,” Skiles says. “We’re always pushing for more Citronaut product to be readily available year-round.”

Fans rep SpaceU and Citronaut gear during the 2021 Space Game, during which UCF beat Memphis 24-7. (Photo by Nick Leyva ’15)

With the uniforms and merchandise coordinated, Skiles then turns his attention to the in-game experience. The brand experience and video production team are challenged to find ways to make the Space Game feel different from any other game.

“We try to have a fully immersive experience — from the songs the Marching Knights play to the lighting in the tunnel for the players, to the video board’s visuals,” Skiles says.

As the Space Game continues to evolve, Skiles says the department is invested in continuing to keep telling the stories of what UCF students, faculty and alums are doing in space.

After the 2018 matchup against Temple, he vividly remembers hoping that the broadcast inspired the next generation of astronauts, engineers and researchers to dream of attending UCF.

“That’s my hope with the Space Game — that not only does it inspire more people to check out UCF and the SpaceU brand, but also attracts the best quality students,” Skiles says. “It’s not just about cool uniforms to get football recruits here. It’s about telling the story of what our people have already accomplished and are working on for the future. And hopefully inspire future students across the world to say: ‘SpaceU — that’s where I want to go.’”