DENVER — Step into a computer classroom after school these days, and you might feel like you’re stepping into a different world.
For the first time ever, Esports is now an officially sanctioned sport under the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA).
Classrooms across the state of Colorado are now becoming competitive arenas for Esports, which is short for "electronic sports" and generally involves video game competitions.
Just ask the students themselves.
Lux Vang, a junior at Cherry Creek High School (CCHS), said it's "awesome" to see the rise of Esports. Riley Walker, a junior at Highlands Ranch High School (HRHS), called it a "set in the right direction." Josh Rosales, a senior at STRIVE Prep in Denver, said his school's team is "pretty competitive" and doesn't shy away from "trash talk."
Rashaan Davis, assistant commissioner for CHSAA, said it has been huge to take games the students are already playing and put them under the CHSAA umbrella.
“It’s another access point for belonging on a campus," Davis said. "So, this is big.”
Head Esports coaches echoed the same sentiment.
“(It's) such a positive change in so many kids' lives,” said Jason Cross, the head coach at Ponderosa High School.
Alexandra Bak, head Esports coach at CCHS, agreed, adding that it takes a tremendous amount of skill and dexterity to be able to play these games at the level the students are playing at.
Denver7 is going 360 on this growing phenomenon with the players, the coaches, the strategy and teamwork involved, and the debate about whether Esports belongs. We start with the explosive popularity.
At CCHS, there are more than 160 players and other students involved in some way with Esports.
“We have people that stream to our Twitch channel. We have people running our social media and designing our website,” Bak said.
HRHS also has a large team. Dennis Sierra, head Esports coach at the high school, said the team just rostered its 51st student.
Even smaller schools, like Strive PREP, have growing rosters. The school's head Esports coach, Joseph Maderick, said it currently has 30 kids coming in.
“The kids are always in here and they’re competing and they’re setting up on their own and going at it," Maderick said.
Low barrier to entry to Esports
One of members' favorite aspects about Esports is that the barrier to entry is low, and the cost of adding a team is minimal.
CCHS's Bak explained that all you need is a computer.
So far, more than 100 Colorado high schools have launched Esports programs and it’s a list that keeps expanding.
Davis, assistant commissioner for CHSAA, added that students at both small schools and large schools are involved.
Bak said the great thing about Esports is its accessibility to big and small schools.
“You don’t need a ton of equipment or fields or space. You just need a computer and kids that have a passion for the game,” she said.
Does Esports belong?
The mindset amongst Esports critics is changing, too.
Sierra, head Esports coach at HRHS, said a few years ago, three students came up to him and asked if he would sponsor their Esports group. At that time, he was guarded, he said.
“At first I was like, ‘You know, we have a video-game club,’" Sierra said. "And they were like, ‘No, no, no. This is different than that.'"
Ryan Hollingshead, a former head high school football coach and now principal at Ponderosa High School, said he initially thought Esports in CHSAA was "crazy."
"My own teenagers play video games and that seemed kind of like a distraction," he said.
Now, he is fully behind the school's Esports team.
“I was 100% against it and within a year, I was 100% behind it,” Hollingshead said. “To get kids connected to the school, to get them to be part of something bigger than themselves, and to learn some of those life-skills – they’re totally getting that in Esports. We’re jumping in all the way.”
Beyond high school, Esports has hit center stage in colleges and even at the pro level.
“With opportunities for scholarships — this is definitely big," said Andrew Wykes, senior at Ponderosa High School.
Ponderosa High School even has a direct connection to Western Colorado University in Gunnison.
“Their Esports team actually talks to our Esports team,” Ponderosa head coach Cross said. “They come through on our screen and actually give advice and help us out.”
Adarsh Boddeda, senior at CCHS, plays a game called Overwatch and said there's even a collegiate league for it.
Bak explained even the Navy has a team — it's for a game called League of Legends.
Sophia Larrea, senior at HRHS, said she plans to attend CU Boulder with hopes of pursuing a career as a video game programmer, developer, or something along those lines.
A new generation of students are unlocking pent-up potential in the multi-billion-dollar cyber-world of Esports.
“They say if you work a job that you love, you never work a day in your life,” student Vang said, adding that people can now see Esports as a career path.
The opportunities are endless.
“In the last Olympics, one of the announcers said, ‘Esports doesn’t need the Olympics, but the Olympics needs Esports,” Bak, head Esports coach at CCHS, said.
Tryouts and academic eligibility requirements
Just like other sports and activities, Esports has tryouts and eligibility requirements.
Boddeda, senior at CCHS, explained that students are not allowed to have two D's, or anything below that, to play Esports at the school.
Joyusa Avila, senior at STRIVE, said this pressure ensures students who participate in Esports have good grades.
Just like other sports, students who participate in Esports must tryout and can earn letters, Bak said.
“It’s cool to see people grow and become confident at something they’re good in,” said Larrea, a senior at HRHS.
Strategy involved in Esports
The strategies in Esports is as real and important as any sport.
Vang, a CCHS junior and team captain of the school's Esports team, said he has "a big voice" and loves coaching. He said he sees similarities between Esports and traditional sports.
“Learning the mechanics of a game,” he said. “It’s kind of like a baseball player. You use a different kind of bat, or whatever it may be.”
Strategy before a game can last for hours in some cases. It sometimes includes scouting other schools and teams to analyze their strengths and weaknesses.
Ethan Anderson, sophomore at Ponderosa High School, said when people ask if Esports is a real sport, he has an answer ready.
“And I’m like, ‘Yes. Except it’s a lot less physical and a lot more mental and strategic sport,’” he said.
Teamwork is off the charts in Esports
Ask Esports players about the teamwork involved in competing and they'll tell you it's a major part of the game — just like football, soccer, basketball and other traditional sports.
“If one person is slacking, the whole game is on the line," Wykes, senior at Ponderosa High School, said. "The whole match is on the line.”
Jaysen Stevens, also a senior at the school, said there's no doubt he's part of a team when he plays these games.
CHSAA Assistant Commissioner Davis said these students are showing their ability to strategize, work as a team and communicate effectively.
Esports players are also breaking down stereotypes and myths while exploring the idea of big money careers for some students.
Esports is not just a ‘boys club’
If you thought Esports was another boys club, think again.
Rose Hosmer, a freshman at HRHS, said she has always liked video games. And Larrea, a senior at the school, said she has been following Esports for three or four years now.
These two young women, plus their fellow female teammates at HRHS, are breaking the mold.
“Actually, for the most part, the Mario Kart team is mostly girls,” Larrea said, laughing. “Last semester, I coached one of our League of Legends teams.”
Esports is a fast-growing sport
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, Esports is the fastest growing sport in America right now. And it continues to gain popularity, attracting players of all walks-of-life and skill levels.
It’s giving many students an opportunity to showcase skills that have, until now, been sidelined by high school sports. Now, they’re finally getting their time to shine.
“It is a non-traditional sport, but there is a lot that it has in common with traditional team sports,” Bak, head Esports coach at CCHS, said. “Strategy, teamwork, communication skills are really a huge part of this.”
At CCHS, Esports was huge as a provisional sport before it became officially sanctioned.
“League of Legends, Rocket League, Smash, Overwatch, Mario Kart and we just added Splatoon,” Bak said. “We’ve won three state titles (provisional).”
Esports as a gateway sport
Hollingshead, principal at Ponderosa High School, and Cross, head coach of Esports at the school, said expanding Esports also expands students involvement and connection to their schools.
“To get them to be part of something bigger than themselves, and to learn some of those life-skills," Hollingshead said. "And they’re totally getting that in Esports.”
In a way, this acts as a gateway for the students to explore other passions too.
Cross said some Esports members are now also in band, tennis, and other extracurricular activities.
Sierra, head Esports coach at HRHS, said the team brings kids together more than any other organization he's been a part of.
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