Freshman Steve Perez compared being a member of Lee Middle and High School’s first esports club to being a member of a traditional sports team.
“You have someone to practice with to make you better at the game,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s where we can be ourselves and relax, too.”
Co-coach Grant Kooi said the aim is to hone the same values as other sports teams, including teamwork, sense of community in a competitive environment and friendship.
“We create a safe space, both for new players and the experienced guys,” he said.
Grant said the team atmosphere is different from gaming alone at home.
“Frankly, they are playing at home with people who sometimes don’t have very good manners … we get guys who come in here without very good manners, but that’s not allowed here,” Kooi explained. “And this isn’t just a club where we show up and fool around.
“We identify things and ask what we can do to get better. It’s super cool to see the kids improve. I’d say our group has tripled or quadrupled in skill.”
His fellow coach, Jonathan Smith, said the club grew from 18 students last fall to 40 middle and high schoolers competing in games such as Super Smash Bros., Ultimate, Fortnite, Overwatch and Mario Kart.
Freshman Jonathan Rivera said he really likes being part of the club. “We are all bonding together. It’s really good. I like it.”
And esports participation is good for grades and soft skills, too.
“Our goals as a club are to increase communication, collaboration and critical thinking in our participants,” said Smith, in his fifth year as network administrator for Godfrey-Lee Public Schools. “Students have raised grades and have a positive mindset when they’re participating in esports. We have seen an uptick from where they were. If they don’t have the grades, they are not able to come to the tournaments.
“We’ve seen a good response getting their homework in and getting their grades up in all of our students.”
Smith said parents can watch their gaming athletes play via streaming. The club relies on fundraising and donations for equipment.
“My hope is to have an arena-style room where you can come watch our gamers in the next couple years,” he said.
Gaming is Growing
In-person gaming clubs are growing in local districts and beyond. Other area esports teams include Catholic Central, East Grand Rapids, Lowell, Rockford, Sparta, Kentwood, West Catholic and West Michigan Aviation Academy.
Aquinas College has hired a full-time esports director and outfitted a dedicated space for competitions. Aquinas hosted a high school tournament on Nov. 25. Western Michigan University has built an arena to accommodate esports.
Smith said various esports college coaches at Davenport University, Aquinas College and Ferris State University have spoken to his team about scholarship opportunities and gamed with them as well.
“It has definitely been put into their ears,” he said. “We have two seniors — Brandon Trujillo and William Jorstad — trying to get into a college program.”
Could esports become part of the Michigan High School Athletic Association? Smith thinks it will, though the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting suspension of all sports likely will delay things.
“We’re definitely seeing it at the collegiate level as a varsity sport, and that’s the hope for the high school level as well,” said Smith earlier this year. The team was competing with East Kentwood, Sparta, Lowell and Kalamazoo’s Loy Norrix before the school closure.
Feb. 14 at East Grand Rapids High School: Junior Manny Martinez and freshman Jose Cureno won a Victory Royale and clinched second place in Fortnite. Freshmen Mario Davenport and Aiden Wind grabbed third. Steve Perez placed in the top 16 in Super Smash Bros.
Feb. 24 at Van Andel Arena: Senior Brandon Trujillo clinched the Mario Kart Tournament championship at the first esports night at Van Andel Arena, winning a signed hockey puck from the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Feb. 27 at Aquinas College: Three Fortnite teams placed in the top 10.