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It's better than reaching the top of the leader board in "Modern Warfare": The University of Utah's undergraduate video game design program was named the best in the country Tuesday.

"This is exciting, this is really exciting," said Mark Van Langeveld, director of the engineering track of the Entertainment Arts and Engineering program. "Locally, I do believe that people don't understand what we've created here."

The undergraduate program beat out the 150 other institutions in the rankings published by The Princeton Review and PC Gamer magazine. The school's graduate program also marked a large jump, coming in at No. 2.

Evaluators were impressed by the program's method of building games in teams that pair art-oriented students with those who are computer- or engineering-centric, said David Soto, director of content development at The Princeton Review.

"It's almost like they're working at a start-up when they're in school," Soto said. "They learn how to work in a team, how to interview."

When those students graduate, they make a median income of $72,000 a year for undergraduates and about $97,000 for those with master's degrees.

"These are compelling figures that are hard to argue with," Soto said.

Graduate student Sterling Pierce said he worked in information technology for eight years before deciding to switch to video games. He chose the U. because it's both nearby and well-regarded. Set to graduate in May, he's now in Orlando working at a project management internship with Electronic Arts, maker of huge sports titles such as Madden NFL, FIFA Soccer and NHL games.

"It is a dream come true. Every day, it's a little surreal to wake up and go into your dream studio and be a part of the dynamics in the environment," Pierce said.

Several video game makers, including EA, have offices in Salt Lake City. Jon Dean, vice president and general manager at EA Salt Lake, said in a statement: "Having the top ranked academic program for game development in the nation a few miles from our studio helps us not only with hiring tomorrow's brightest game professionals but allows us to continue making incredible games here in Salt Lake."

And those internships pay off. In the class of 2012, all of the master's students had a job at or before graduation and 54 percent of undergraduates were employed when they got their diploma, according to the Review.

Almost all the U.'s professors have experience working in video games, including for major companies such as Disney, Microsoft and EA, and Langeveld traces the program's strength to the U.'s computer science program from about 1965 through the '80s. The school produced students such as John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe, and Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar.

"We knew this is what we wanted to do, and there was a core group of people who were founders of this program. We went to all the ranked schools around, came back and started building this program," he said.

They host summer camps for high school students, and interview every promising applicant to the program. The graduating class size is just over 100 from the bachelor's program and 25 to 50 for the master's program.

The word has spread, drawing applicants from China, India, Russian, Mexico and Indonesia. Part of the draw comes from people seeing and playing student-created games such as "Erie." Each game has a thesis, and Erie aims to make a player feel fear. Distributed online as a free download, it took off after people recorded themselves playing it and posted the videos on YouTube.

"Within a very short period of time, it had several million views ... then the downloads began," Langeveld said.

The Princeton Review is a private education and college preparation company that produced the ratings based on a 50-question survey. Curriculum, faculty credentials, facilities and infrastructure all play into the rating, as well as scholarships, financial aid and graduates' job prospects.

The U.'s five-year-old program has been competitive in the past, but settled for the silver and bronze in 2011 and 2012. This year, it beat the other top schools, including the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and Nintendo's own DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash.

The graduate program came in sixth shortly after it was established in 2010, but last year fell off the top 10. The two-year-long master's program rose in the ratings this year after it produced its first crop of graduates, Langeveld said, coming in second to USC.

"It's a really young major and a young field," Soto said. "As these programs grow, we could see more schools participate and more schools become recognized for what they're doing."

Twitter: @lwhitehurst —

Top undergraduate schools for video game design in 2013

1. University of Utah

2. University of Southern California

3. DigiPen Institute of Technology

Top graduate schools for video game design

1. University of Southern California

2. University of Utah

3. Drexel University in Philadelphia

Source: The Princeton Review