Students crowded around their seated comrade, uttering words of encouragement and strategic tips as they stared spellbound at a chunky computer screen. The five hoodied teens didn’t know each other well before joining the South Burlington High School’s premier esports league, but they’ve become friends since competing together, not in cleats on Astroturf, but as battlemages and juggernauts in League of Legends.
Two other teams of students have competed in online video game tournaments since principal Patrick Burke started the esports league earlier this year. Many others who don’t normally engage in school activities have joined to meet new people with shared interests. Students hail from all corners of the high school, many whose paths otherwise wouldn’t cross, Burke said.
“It brings students who wouldn’t normally be working together, together,” he explained, watching a Super Smash Brothers match over the shoulders of a few students sitting on the floor. He seems enthusiastic, but described himself as relatively clueless about video games — something his students confirmed, laughing.
Esports, or online competitive video gaming, is not a new concept, but it’s acceptance in mainstream media, recognition at the collegiate level and transition into a lucrative profession has boomed in the United States in the last decade. Livestreaming games on the internet, which grew in popularity with platforms like YouTube, catalyzed the rise of esports in the 2010s. Amazon-owned streaming site, Twitch, now dominates the gamer world, though many other creators, from chefs to musicians to activists, use the platform as well.
Professional esport players are often contracted by organizations, similar to traditional athletes, while college- and high school-level teams, like the eWolves, compete against other schools across the country.
According to the High School Esports League, online video game competitions offer students opportunities to encourage teamwork and communication between student athletes. But like many other traditional sports, professional tournaments also beckon young competitors with million-dollar prizes before churning them out to retire by 30.
The young South Burlington gamers see esports as a way to connect with each other — in person and online.
Ready player one
League of Legends competitor and high school senior Ethan James said he’s been playing videos games his whole life. He rows crew in school and joined the esports league at the beginning of the year, where he met his four other teammates. They practice together, remote or in person at school, and strategize before tournaments, similar to traditional athletes.
While gamers can compete from their home computer, playing in person is much more fun, James said — especially when family and friends join to watch.
“You’re all together and you all start yelling in the room, getting all excited,” he said. “My older sister plays video games as well and all her friends do, so they all get to come and watch the game and they’ll tell me what they think afterwards so it’s kind of a big fun connection.”
League of Legends is one of many video games students play in esports, and one of the high school’s three competitive teams. The eWolves’ other teams include Super Smash Brothers — a classic 90s fighting game, pitting Zelda versus Mario versus Pikachu, among other dream combos — and Rocket League — a 2015 game that combines rocket-powered cars with soccer.
Burke hopes to keep recruiting kids to compete. He’s already seen increased engagement among students who don’t participate in any other school activities, plus the club has pushed older students into leadership positions, many acting as mentors, he said.
His hope — to bring students from all walks of life together, and help shy students out of their shell — seems to be working. One of the competitive players is also on the football team, another is an avid bass fisher and another plays volleyball.
Devin Brooker, a high school senior and competitor on the Super Smash team, also joined early this year.
“It’s fun to get a set team together. It feels like you can really improve and have more fun if you’re actually playing with people cause if you’re just playing by yourself … it can be less rewarding,” Brooker said.
Senior League of Legends competitor Zi Tao Zhao said playing with and getting to know his team is his favorite aspect of esports. The game takes mental strength, he said, similar to chess, which is recognized by the International Olympic Committee.
Still, many don’t consider esports to be a real sport despite its growing popularity and recognition by many colleges and universities.
“I mean, I feel like esports is in the shadows right now. And I feel like in the future, it will become more in the spotlight, but time will tell,” Zhao said.
Esports will always be a little different from traditional sports, since it’s hard to compare to physical activities, added Brooker.
“But I still think it is legitimate and that there is a level of skill that can be achieved that needs to be there in order to compete,” Brooker said. “You actually have to, like, train yourself and learn and improve and get better.”
Junior Liam Slattery who plays on the Super Smash team, echoed his peers’ sentiments, arguing that esports is “sort of emerging out of the shadows” as competitions and prize pools grow. One jackpot recently awarded the winner $3 million, he recalled.
“Anyone can do it … like anyone. That kid was 16 years old,” Slattery said.
That’s another reason the kids are all about high school esports: its accessibility.
While gaming can get expensive — it requires access to a computer, internet and games at minimum — the school league allows anyone who walks in to pick up a controller and pair.
Competitor Aria Austin plays Super Smash but likes gaming because “there’s something for everybody” — whether you’re looking to chill out and build a log cabin, to battle aliens or to play soccer with flying rocket cars.
At Burke’s side is co-coach Beth Adreon, a paraeducator at the high school. Although she too admits to being clueless in the video game world, she’s excitedly been researching college scholarships and other opportunities for students.
The National Association of Collegiate Esports offers $16 million in scholarships and aid, according to the nonprofit’s website. Since 2016, esports has boomed — only seven colleges and universities offered varsity esports programs across the country, according to the association, but as of 2019, over 170 collegiate institutions have launched video game programs.
Some include Albright College, Florida Southern College, Georgia State University, New England College in New Hampshire, University of California at Irvine and University of Montana, among many others.
All South Burlington High School esports games stream live on Twitch, for folks to watch wherever they are.
“It’s a cool way for people to watch and see what it’s about without actually having to like, show up to one if they’re not sure if it’s something that they’re interested in,” Brooker said.
The League of Legends team were undefeated as of press time, before the results of Tuesday’s match against the Harpswell Coastal Academy Narwhals were live.