STANARDSVILLE — Two nervous teachers cheered on students from William Monroe High School’s eSports team as they competed recently against Kettle Run High School in a Rocket League scrimmage match.
Rocket League is essentially soccer, but played by high-powered sports cars in a 3-D arena. And instead of driving the cars, the players are controlling digitally constructed vehicles through a video game controller hooked into a computer via the internet.
Welcome to the world of eSports!
The Virginia High School League, a nonprofit organization of Virginia’s public and private high schools, promotes education, leadership, sportsmanship, character and citizenship for students by establishing and maintaining high standards for school activities and competitions. Last May, the VHSL approved a one-year pilot program for eSports competitions, with plans to consider it for potential sanctioning as an official activity for the league after feedback on the initial year.
The eSports platform, a company named Play Versus (PlayVS.com), runs all the competitions and schedules teams through their online system, in collaboration with the VHSL. Students must maintain eligibility to play as with any other sport by maintaining their grades and attendance in school.
When eighth-grade world geography teacher Alan Causey heard that eSports was officially sanctioned by the schools, he eagerly joined in efforts to set up a team at William Monroe High School and became the team’s coach.
“I started playing videogames back in the early 1980s,” Causey said. “I don’t play as much as I used to, but my son and I like to play a lot of the [old Nintendo] games. We heard rumors that they were going to be offering [eSports] through Virginia High School League, and I was like, ‘wow, we’ve got to do this!’”
Once the team was signed up, they only had two weeks to prepare for their first game. While it was talked about on the morning announcements and advertised through an interest meeting, Causey hopes the sport will grow in popularity by next year, by which time they also should have sorted out what it would take to award a varsity letter for eSports participation.
“There’s a lot of students that probably go home and play these games, and it’s nice to have them here at school where we’re making sure they’re being [safe],” Causey said. “And this is a varsity sport, just like baseball or football, so they do need to keep their grades up and there can’t be any behavior problems or we won’t have a spot for them on the team.”
The team, which currently has 11 members, practices after school on Mondays and Wednesdays. Rocket League competitions are on Tuesdays and League of Legends competitions are held Thursdays in one of the available computer labs in the middle school. “League of Legends” is a team-based strategy game where two teams of powerful champions face off to destroy the other’s base, according to the game’s website (think “Capture the Flag”).
“One of the neat things about eSports is there’s no travel,” Causey said.
Because the computers in the school’s lab are not built for gaming, Causey said he hopes to have the team do some fundraising to purchase some custom gaming machines if the team continues to grow next year. The students bring their own USB controllers from home to plug in to the school computers.
“This is our first year trying this,” he said. “We’re playing with school equipment, which is not ideal. We do need to raise some money, which is something that we’re likely going to do this summer. And we’re going to build our own computers.”
Some schools have dedicated computer labs just for eSports, so Causey is hopeful they will at least get a couple of new computers by next year.
Freshman Maya Anderson, who plays “League of Legends,” is the only girl currently on the team.
“I always had an attachment to video games ever since I was in third grade, so it’s nice that it’s been able to get this far,” Anderson said. “I can play video games in high school as a hobby, something I can do with my friends. It’s nice to have some people in your grade teach you about how you’re supposed to do things in the game.”
When asked about being the only girl on the team, Anderson laughed.
“There are a lot of people who want to stereotype girls with video games,” she said. “But I don’t like to be fit into a category; I like proving people wrong.”
The Rocket League team is currently 2-0 and the “League of Legends” team is 1-3, so the team has some practice ahead of them to work on improving their gaming skills. With enough interest, they hope to hold tryouts next year.