Jim Rand, a social studies teacher and coach at Griswold High School, stands in front of his players at 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon giving a pre-game pep talk.
“It’s always better we win, but even if you don’t… don’t fear,” he said.
He reminds the players that the season is still young — it’s early October and only their second full match of the season. But he wants them to remember that every game brings them closer to the championships.
With that, it’s time for their warm-up. Fifteen or so students pull their equipment out of their bags — headsets, personal video game controllers, a microphone. Rand flips off the lights, and rows of computers light up fluorescent green. Without further ado, the teens log in.
Rand is coach of Griswold’s new Esports team — a group of about 18 students that compete with teams from across the country in a selection of online games.
Esports is becoming increasingly popular in high schools nationwide. The High School Esports League, which Griswold is part of, boasts over 3,400 participating schools, according to its website. The league hosts tournaments in 12 different online games. In the spring, the top four schools in each game will be invited to a national championship in Arlington, Texas, where they will compete for $150,000 in scholarship money.
The sport is also becoming popular at the college level, paving the way for high school students to win scholarship opportunities. The National Association of College Esports, which formed in 2016, counts over 170 member schools.
Rand explained that students involved in Esports do more than just play games. They are responsible for broadcasting the matches via the streaming platforms Twitch or YouTube and providing live commentary of the matches, which they do using a commentator’s box that the school purchased using part of a $67,000 — Public Educational and Governmental Programming and Educational Technology Investment Account (PEGPETIA) — grant from PURA. One student also helps out with the team’s Discord, a messaging and voice chat software that the teams use to communicate.
Rand said that these skills can be assets for students looking to go into certain career pathways. The skills necessary to play and stream Esports also have uses in game design, broadcasting, web development, journalism, finance, human resources and even law, according to a document published by learning company Pearson and the British Esports Association.
Beyond the practical applications of Esports, Rand said, the team also provides an outlet for students to find their own niche. Rand said he believed Esports filled a “missing link” — attracting students who might be left out of sports or other school activities.
Kyle Gunderman, infrastructure manager and also a coach for the Esports team, said the team allows students to build social skills.
“If you’re kid’s going to be gaming anyway, it’s nice to have them involved in a community,” said Gunderman.
Rand said the team aspect also teaches students how to collaborate.
“You could have the same kids gaming at home in isolation with one another, but that takes the entire team aspect out of it,” said Rand. “And that’s, again, the magic of learning from one another — being able to interact and create strategies, team strategies.”
“An official team”
In the spring of 2021, Rand said, school principal Erin Palonen came to him with the proposal of turning an old writing lab into a high-level computer lab. After getting support from the Board of Education, Rand, along with Infrastructure Manager Kyle Gunderman, the school custodial staff and a subcontractor, redid the room within a few months. When it opened in the fall, the room — now called the “Nexus Lab” — was repainted and refurbished in a green-and-black theme, with posters hanging from the walls featuring Disney animated princesses and phrases like “Keep Calm and Code On.”
“This is a college-slash-pro level room,” said Rand. “I could be wrong, but I don’t believe there’s any other high schools that have this level of a room.”
Rand said the new lab cost about $70,000. It included 21 new computers that cost $2,000 each, professional gaming chairs, two 55” LG Televisions, and a 75” SmartTV.
In addition to Esports, the district plans to use the lab to offer animation classes and coding classes beginning in the fall of 2022.
Tuesdays are competition nights – the students come in around 2:30, practice for an hour and a half before the matches, and then start competing just after 4 p.m. On Wednesdays, Rand said, the students have an open lab session during which they can practice other games.
That Tuesday afternoon in the lab, Rand reminded the students that there is a schoolwide pep rally the next week. He’s ordered t-shirts that feature the Griswold logo — the wolverine — wearing a headset and holding a video game controller.
“You are an official team in the school, and you will be recognized for it,” he told them.
The teenagers turn back to their monitors and pull up Rocket League — virtual soccer played with cars. They design their virtual cars and whiz them around virtual stadia, bopping an animated soccer ball off the car hoods. Meanwhile, the Griswold girls’ soccer team is visible from a window in the lab, doing their own passes on the field outside.
At 3:55 p.m, the students “queue in” – they log into the ESports platform and wait to be matched with the team they will play.
Ten minutes later, matches are made. This week, the three Griswold teams are playing against schools in Kansas, Ohio, and Mexico.
Rocket League is played in seven five-minute rounds of three-on-three. Win four of the seven rounds, and you’ve won the match. A sophomore who said he joined the team only last week is trying his hand at “shoutcasting.” He murmurs into a headset connected to the commentators’ box, providing a play-by-play of the rounds as he watches from the big screen upfront.
“This is real intense, we’ve got 35 seconds on the clock … They are trying their best to hold off the ball from getting into the goal, and so far, succeeding … I have some unfortunate news, Team 2 lost their first game … They are trying their best but so far it’s been real difficult, orange is just putting up a fight …”
Rand said that one of the nice things about Esports is that it avoids many of the less convenient aspects of traditional sports. There’s no travel for games, which means no money spent on transportation or hotels. The team doesn’t have to cancel when it rains. Sports injuries don’t exist.
Esports, however, sometimes presents its own challenges. For example, at one point, Team two’s opponents simply disappear from the field. Could it be a dropped connection? Is it a forfeit? Rand moves around the room, checking up on tech difficulties and watching the scores.
Team one, whose game has been punctuated by the occasional fist-pumps and cheering, beats their opponents in the first four rounds. Rand said that, as of that afternoon, the team was ranked 7th out of a total of 645 Esports teams in the league.
The other two teams are having more trouble. Team two, whose opponents have reappeared, eventually loses in overtime. By that point, team three has lost all of the first four rounds, and, with that, the match.
“That was horrendous today. That was actual slaughter,” one of the team members said after the game.
“A diverse set of backgrounds”
Rand said that the students who play Esports don’t fit into one neat category. He said that about 90 percent of students engage with online gaming at some point, cutting across a wide swath of the student body.
“We’ve got some kids that are traditional sports players that want to get involved. We’ve got some kids that have been into the play or the musical — more theater, drama type students — they’re getting involved,” said Rand. “I couldn’t say that there’s like one person that would represent the group. They really come from a very diverse set of backgrounds.”
Josh, a junior at the high school and a member of the winning team, said that he was playing on the Esports team in the hope of winning a scholarship to college. He said that, because Griswold is a small school, he felt he had more of a chance of getting a scholarship through Esports than through traditional sports teams.
“I tell people I’m from Griswold, [and] they don’t even know where it is,” he said.
Ben St.Peter, a senior and one of the team’s regular “shoutcasters” who is also a former student of Rand’s, said that he remembers Rand going on about the team.
“He was so excited he couldn’t stop talking about it,” St. Peter said of Rand.
St. Peter said he is thinking about a career in journalism, specifically as a newscaster. He said he really enjoys calling the plays for the Esports team, and that he’d also like to start a Minecraft League.
Andrea, a sophomore on team three who is interested in becoming a business owner and a professional singer, said she loved gaming, but couldn’t afford the equipment. Being on the esports team meant that she could play the games using the school equipment.
Andrea said she uses the gaming to get her frustration out. She also said it helps with patience and that the games require her to have “extreme focus.” She said that while she is “really bad” at Rocket League, she’s better at Fortnite, Minecraft and Call of Duty.
Esports offers competitions in 12 games, including Rocket League, online chess, NBA 2k (online basketball), Overwatch, Call of Duty and Minecraft.
Rand said that the team will finish an eight-week fall season, finishing with playoffs in November. He said the spring will have a similar practice schedule, but that the plan is to offer three or four additional games in the spring. He said he expects that this will increase the number of students who join the team.
“We’re going to let [the students] guide us,” said Rand. “We’re going to let them tell us what they would like to see out of the gaming in the future.”