Illustration | Laura Mattei
From the practices to the games and state playoffs, Alabama’s newest high school sport isn’t much different from traditional sports, but instead of meeting opponents on a field or court, these students will be clashing head-to-head in online video games.
The Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) approved esports as a “sanctioned varsity event” earlier this year. Beginning in 2019, students from 30 high schools around the state will be competing in three popular video games — League of Legends, Smite and Rocket League.
The skill set is different, but like elite football, basketball or baseball prospects, some of the students who will fill esports rosters have been developing their individual talents for years.
The final roster won’t be set until the season begins, but Peyton Leonhardt is expected to play an integral role on the team Baker High School fields to compete in League of Legends this spring.
“I’ve been playing [League of Legends] for probably about seven years,” Leonhardt said. “My older brother and his friends were playing it, so he showed me. It took me at least a year and half of playing before I felt confident playing against people consistently.”
Around the state, school-sanctioned esports has been welcome news to young gamers such as Leonhardt, but there have been mixed reactions among some older Alabamians — many of whom either haven’t picked up a video game controller since the days of Super Mario Brothers or have never picked one up at all.
AHSAA Assistant Director Marvin Chou acknowledged some disapproval, but said esports are only going to continue to grow in popularity. While it may not be what some people think of as a sport, he also believes esports can offer students the same social and character benefits as traditional sports.
“We’re hoping to reach a group of students that aren’t participating in other sports and give them the same opportunity to represent their school and have that passion as a football, basketball or baseball player,” Chou told Lagniappe. “There are a number of students that either don’t want to — or can’t — get out on a field or court who could actually participate in this.”
New player approaching
While high school esports is an uncharted area, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has established a partnership making it easier and more platatiple for states to participate.
The digital infrastructure needed for competitions is being provided through a contract with PlayVS, and since NFHS approved esports as a sanctioned activity at the national level, member associations in more than 15 states have either launched or approved high school programs.
Several states, including Alabama, had originally planned to begin esports in October, but Chou said they were delayed because PlayVS was only offering one game at a time, League of Legends. The company has since added support for Smite and Rocket League.
In League of Legends, a five-person team uses “champions” with unique abilities to attack an opposing team’s base while defending their own. While it has a different aesthetic, Smite is essentially based on the same concept.
Rocket League is a bit simpler. It’s basically a 3-on-3 soccer match played with rocket-powered cars, and, like the other two games, is easy to pick up but can take years to master. All of the games PlayVS hosts in 2019 require teamwork, communication and varying levels of strategy.
Chou said those types of team-based games were included because of the skills players can develop, while other titles — including popular shooter games like Fortnite and Counter Strike: Global Offensive — were intentionally excluded because of their violent subject matter.
“[These games] are teaching the players teamwork. They also each have some hand-eye coordination and multitasking involved. Students are using a keyboard, a mouse and a headset while having to work with two to four other teammates,” Chou said. “At the end of the day, it’s bringing kids together and having them work to accomplish a common goal, and any time you can do do that, it’s a good thing.”
Baker High School is the only school in Mobile County with a team registered to play in the 2019 esports season so far. But across the bay, students enrolled in Baldwin County Virtual School will participate as well.
Some professional teams and collegiate-level esports clubs put thousands of dollars into their facilities, but with high school programs, the cost of participation should be less than other sports.
A $64 fee is all that’s required of students to participate each season, and though teams are required to play matches at their respective schools, many schools are making use of existing computer labs on campus.
When the 2019 season kicks off in February, teams will play a best-of series against an opponent from a different school each week, but there’s no set schedule of opponents. Instead, PlayVs uses a dynamic system that sets matches between schools with a similar record throughout the season.
State playoffs are expected to start in May, and the first champion should be crowned by the end of that month. However, because esports is not yet considered a “championship sport” by AHSAA, Chou said the winning team’s trophy won’t be the familiar blue plaque in the shape of Alabama.
With the global popularity of esports rooted in the ability to livestream events over the internet as they’re happening, ASHAA is hoping to offer schools an option to stream their matches in the future using the same NFHS system that broadcasts postseason games in many other sports.
Taking a cue from professional esports events, Chou said AHSAA hopes to bid out the right to host its state championship game in the future so it can be played at neutral venues with an arena and large screens for players and spectators.
“We’d love to host it here in Montgomery, but we’re still trying to find a facility that would be appropriate,” he said. “Movie theaters are very good for these kind of things, but you need enough seating and a stage to put that type of atmosphere together.”
Baker High School esports
Principal John J. Poiroux is far from a gamer, but it’s hard to miss his enthusiastic support for Baker’s esports students. While it’s not “the Nintendo [he] grew up on,” Poiroux said he doesn’t have to understand details to see the value in what the team is doing.
When the AHSAA pressed pause on its deal with PlayVS earlier this year, Poiroux approved the school funding needed to allow Baker’s team to play in another league. It wasn’t sanctioned by AHSAA, but it allowed the team to gain experience playing League of Legends matches against others high schoolers.
They went 3-5 but managed to beat the only other school from Alabama.
“Research has proven that when children are involved, they’re much more successful, and we do everything possible to make sure all of our kids have something they can be involved with,” Poiroux said. “I value what those kids do, but just like everyone else, I expect them to be the best. I’ve already told them, ‘I want to see y’all win us a state championship.’”
With the administration on board, Baker didn’t have to look far for faculty members to coach the team. Journalism instructor Justin Tolbert and math teacher Chris Hanson have played games most of their lives, and Tolbert has played League of Legends for the last seven years.
Now Tolbert is putting his enthusiasm for the game into coaching the team, and despite what some would expect, there’s plenty for an esports coach to do. At practices, Tolbert and Hanson give tips and help strategize but also jump in themselves and play in scrimmages when there’s an odd number of students.
Schools using the PlayVS format can also review archived footage of upcoming opponents’ previous games. Leonhardt said Tolbert often makes spreadsheets of opponents’ skill levels and prefered champions for the team to study — something they “talk about all the time during the season.”
When Baker first made the announcement it was looking for students to participate in an esports program, Tolbert said about 19 students expressed interest. As AHSAA suggested, some of those students “might not have been involved” in other activities at the school, but others were.
According to Tolbert, one football player had to quit the esports team because the practices overlapped, and another student couldn’t meet after school two days per week because of marching band. After the initial season was delayed, those early numbers dwindled even more.
Today, Tolbert said there are only nine full-time members on Baker’s team, but he’s hopeful more students will come on board once the program moves into its first official season.
Like Poiroux, Tolbert agrees esports have the ability reach a population of students who otherwise may see school only as place to come study, pass tests and leave. But he said esports are also helping bring different types of students together because of their shared interest in video games.
“Under any other circumstances, we probably wouldn’t have all these same kids together,” Tolbert observed. “We even had some [English as a second language] students come in, and none of the other students really knew them. Of course, they couldn’t communicate very well, but once we got in the game, it didn’t matter whether they could speak English or not.”
A global phenomenon
Competitions between players are as old as video games themselves, but the 1980 Space Invaders Championship is often cited as the first esports event. There were more than 10,000 participants at regional events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago and New York.
It’s hard to overstate the growth in popularity esports has enjoyed since.
Today it’s the fastest growing sport in the world, with a yearly global audience comprising close to 500 million fans. League of Legends alone has an active player base exceeding 80 million, with an average of more than 27 million people logging on every day. That doesn’t include the millions of people who watch the action but don’t play.
The 2018 League of Legends World Championship drew more than 200 million simultaneous live spectators, and sections of Rocket League’s world championship were rebroadcast on TBS — the same network that stopped broadcasting Atlanta Braves games because of a slump in national ratings.
Rocket League’s developer, Psyonix Inc., has pushed to make its flagship game an established eSport since it was first released in 2015, and by most standards, it’s become a competitive title relatively quickly.
Josh Watson, senior manager of global esports at Psyonix, recently told Lagniappe moving into the area of high school esports was a logical next step for the game that’s already popular in some collegiate circles.
“We’ve long believed that Rocket League is a sport that can positively impact the scholastic experience for gamers of every age group,” Watson wrote in an emailed statement. “Psyonix is dedicated to bringing that experience to as many students as possible, and we believe that PlayVS is the perfect partner to deliver the fun, fair and engaging experience that our players deserve.”
Another person who can attest to the growth of esports is Dustin Mouret. A 2008 graduate of Alma Bryant High School, Mouret has found a relatively steady side gig freelancing as an esports commentator.
Most every major esports Livestream has many of the same trimmings as any other sports broadcast, including color commentary, stats and replays. Mouret has been able to take on commentating roles for events in the U.S., Canada and several European countries.
“Some work for me involves covering online tournaments and leagues from home, while others have involved me traveling and working onsite for bigger tournaments,” Mouret said. “The [esports] industry is still very competitive, and any job as a freelancer is stressful, but at least today it is a viable pursuit, where in years past it was simply a hobby.”
For a select group high schooler players, esports could also be the key to a college education. According to PlayVS, there are currently 200 colleges and universities in multiple countries offering nearly $10 million in scholarship opportunities to esports players.
Some are smaller, more tech-focused schools, but others are mainstream U.S. universities with powerhouse programs for traditional sports, including Ohio State, Penn State and the University of Wisconsin. That’s another reason Chou said AHSAA couldn’t just ignore esports.
“These people are out there,” Chou said. “Colleges are building esport arenas to have these kids come on board. I can see a kid who’s interested in doing this becoming a computer engineer — and as you know, there’s plenty of jobs out there in that area.”
Alabama’s premier college sports hubs — The University of Alabama and Auburn University — both have esports clubs as well, though neither are official functions yet. Perry Bunn, a senior majoring in computer science, is the president of Auburn’s Esports club, which he co-founded as a freshman.
Bunn said, at times, Auburn’s club has boasted nearly 100 members and fielded up to eight teams competing against other colleges in various video games. One of those teams made an unsuccessful run in the Collegiate Rocket League National Championship tournament this fall.
“It’s been interesting to meet all these different people who want to play or who just want to be involved in the club,” Bunn said. “Auburn’s esports club is so diverse. I’ve met international students from across the globe that I would have likely never met otherwise.”
For all its growing popularity, there are still some who aren’t thrilled to see esports join the ranks of traditional high school sports. But for what it’s worth, esports just happens to be the name that stuck, and most players balk as much as their detractors at the idea of being called an “athlete.”
Tolbert said he heard a local talk radio host take a few minutes last week to skewer the idea of video games being considered a high school sport, and he’s heard others express some skepticism about the idea as well.
However, he believes most of that is rooted in a lack of understanding.
“All esports are video games, but not all video games are esports. When people think about video games, their first thought is usually things like Mario… or they go to the other extreme and think of Grand Theft Auto, but that’s not what the kids are playing,” Tolbert said. “They’re doing something extremely competitive. There’s a lot of strategy, there’s strategic communication and there’s absolutely a learning curve to it.”
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