Video gaming moves from virtual online to inter-school competitions

Members of the Sparta team get ready for first egame competition; from left sophomores Ian Gillespie and Cayden Lafond and freshman Ian Blom

Senior Tyler Risner plays football for Sparta HIgh School, but he believes the trend toward having schools compete in electronic games is also a great idea — especially for students who choose not to participate in traditional sports.

Sparta senior Tyler Risner gets ready for competition

“Not all people are good at or like sports, and it is a good idea to participate in something for the school,” said Tyler while at his team’s first multi-school competition.

A sense of belonging and representing the school is high on educators’ lists as well when they explain why they are pursuing fielding teams in the fast-growing venue.

“Esports, or competing in computerized gaming, is another way for our students to represent our school,” said Sparta High School Principal Matt Spencer.

While pulling together a team at Sparta has had ups and downs, students have shown interest. “Over 60 kids showed up at our first meeting,” Spencer said. “It has been a bit difficult because it is so new and not organized yet, but we definitely see potential.”

Local esports teams besides Sparta currently also include Catholic Central, East Grand Rapids, Godfrey-Lee, Lowell, Rockford, Kentwood, West Catholic and West Michigan Aviation Academy.

Sparta seniors Tyler Risner (back) and Kevin Poling set up their computers for the competition

Getting Started

Doug Jenkins, director of technology and assessment at East Grand Rapids Public Schools, started an esports group for students in grades 9-12 last spring after receiving notice from area athletic directors to see if there was interest.

EGR, along with West Catholic, Lowell and Kentwood, held a couple competitions, where organizers got to see the value of getting students together to compete in person, Jenkins said.

“We see esports as a way to connect more kids to school,” he said.

“Any time a student can do the thing they are passionate about, wearing a school jersey, sitting across from a student who lives 15 miles away, that’s a very good thing. I see these kids being able to run out on a virtual field and play a game that involves teamwork and sportsmanship.”

Risner sees multiple benefits in gaming. It builds eye-hand coordination, he said, and teaches focus, electronics and many other life skills. Like other athletes, e-sport participants must maintain their grades.

“I’m fairly new to this field, but it is interesting to see so many students get involved in electronics of any kind,” said Al Eckman, Lowell High School team coach. “They have so much knowledge in this field, and it is great to see them use it.”

Electronic gaming room at Aquinas College

College E-athletes

Since Robert Morris University in Chicago started offering scholarships for electronic gaming in 2014, many universities and colleges have jumped on board. According to Animation Career Review, which lists colleges and universities offering scholarships, the number of available higher education scholarships for gamers has increased more than 480% in the last year.

“Any time a student can do the thing they are passionate about, wearing a school jersey, sitting across from a student who lives 15 miles away, that’s a very good thing. I see these kids being able to run out on a virtual field and play a game that involves teamwork and sportsmanship.”

— Doug Jenkins, director of technology and assessment at East Grand Rapids Public Schools

Aquinas College has hired a full-time esports director and outfitted a dedicated space for competitions. Western Michigan University has built an arena to accommodate the sport.

The West Catholic egame team is all business

Aquinas hosted the high school tournament on Nov. 25 this year, where Risner and the Sparta team met to compete in Fortnite. The new gaming room wasn’t large enough to hold all the local teams, so some met at Kentwood High School.

Adam Antor helped start a team at West Catholic and is now director of esports at Aquinas, which is building a full-time program and also offering scholarships to potential students. Antor said he has worked closely with technology specialists from local high schools and Kent ISD.

“We find that this brings people together who might otherwise not be together, he said.

EGR’s Jenkins said organizers have found reasons to continue supporting the effort to get more high schools involved, but the organization piece is in its infancy.

“Right now, we don’t have a top-down organization; for now it’s more of a sideways organization,” Jenkins said. “It’s so interesting to see the beginning of something like this. Everybody knows we want to get it organized, to form an organizing body that can say ‘how do we do this’ and who’s in charge of what.”

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and is thrilled to spend some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio or email Janice.

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