NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — When thinking of high school athletic facilities, a computer lab may not be the first place that comes to mind, but at Narragansett High School its the home of the school’s varsity esports program, the first such program in the area.
Esports, short for electronic sports, is the name given to competitive video gaming in which individual participants or teams challenge each other in tournament formats at a particular game. Originating from amateur tournaments organized by companies such as Nintendo and Blockbuster in the US in the 1990s and South Korean gaming centers known as PC Bangs, esports have become a full-fledged business in the past decade as video streaming platforms such as Twitch has given rise to an audience for elite players of popular games such as Overwatch and Fortnite to go professional and compete in massive tournaments with large cash prizes which have been featured on ESPN and other major networks.
The Rhode Island Interscholastic League (RIIL) began recognizing esports as a varsity level high school sport last school year, with the first two seasons having been completed in the fall and spring respectively.
RIIL esports are ran by PlayVS, a Los Angeles-based company specializing in building and fostering interscholastic esports programs. According to a press release, PlayVS says they have over 13,000 schools, or 68 percent of all U.S. high schools, on a waiting list to join.
For perspective, there are currently 14,247 high school football programs in the U.S. according to PlayVS.
When Narragansett High School computer technology teacher Chris Herz first heard esports were coming to Rhode Island, he knew the school needed to get involved.
“I saw it on the news, it was at the very end of the summer, and when we came back to school, I said ‘what do you think of this idea?’ and Principal (Dan) Warner was all behind it,” Herz said. “We then went to the superintendent (Peter Cummings) and he was all behind it as well, so we ended up figuring out what it takes to join the league, what the costs were and advertised and we ended up with two teams last year.”
RIIL esports are unique to other varsity sports in that a school can field multiple teams. The RIIL holds competitions for three games: League of Legends, a team-based strategy game in which players are tasked with destroying the other team’s Nexus, a well-defended hub, before their opponent destroys theirs, Rocket League, a game similar to soccer played with cars and Smite, a mulitplayer battle arena game where players take control of gods, goddesses and other mythological creatures or beings from a variety of ancient cultures to do battle with one another.
For the RIIL, Rocket League is played in teams of three, while League of Legends and Smite are done in teams of five. Narragansett has two teams: the E-Boys and the E-Men.
The vast majority of students on both teams are returning from last season, and Herz hopes the experience will help lead to better results this season.
“(Last year) they didn’t do very well, but they’re doing it again this year, so we have two teams and they’re a little more experienced so we hope they do better,” Herz said.
This season, the program has added a co-coach in social studies teacher Marcus Schroeter, an esports fan and longtime gamer who asked Herz, who says he personally isn’t much of a gamer, if he could get involved following the end of last season.
“I’ve been a video gamer since when I think we had Pong,” Schroeter said. “I think that was the first game we purchased, I don’t know how many hours I have, a ridiculous amount of hours playing video games, so (coaching) it just seemed a natural fit for me.”
Schroeter has enjoyed seeing esports being taken more seriously by people and organizations that hadn’t given them more thought in the past, and believes it opens up more opportunities for students to get involved in school activities.
“I think it just opens up opportunities for students who are competitive, but don’t want to go out on the playing field for whatever reason, and this just allows another opportunity for personal growth, comradery and all those beneficial things that come with a team sport,” Schroeter said.
“I think it’s really fun,” E-Men senior ZuZu Crane said. “It’s just a cool bonding experience to hang out with everyone and play games and, you know, winning is also very fun. You get to learn and there’s a bunch of strategy put into the games, like there’s research that we do at home, you see what characters fit with you, the combos and the damages and it’s fun teamwork.”
A second year member of the team, Crane says she wasn’t much of a multiplayer game player before, preferring story-based solo games, but playing games such as League of Legends and learning different strategies has made her more of a fan of the competitive multiplayer format.
“You get to see what people do and what games they play and what different styles of everything,” Crane said of League of Legends. “Every team and every style is built upon different ways and it’s always a challenge to see who you’re up against next.”
“It’s very fun, it’s very competitive,” E-Boys senior Thomas Levitt, another second year member, said.
“We have a nice team going on, a nice sense of brothership and it’s fun,” E-Boys senior Dan Taylor said.
Taylor is technically a first year member, but often showed up at practices last season and has become familiar with both League of Legends and the RIIL esports format.
“(Last year) there was a big learning curve at first with items and everything, but now we’ve kind of got everything handled and now we’re only improving,” Taylor said.
Both teams feel they’ve improved with experience since last season, and Herz says their goal is for both teams to make the playoffs.
The fall season kicked off last month and runs through Dec. 16, with the playoffs starting on Jan. 7.
While both teams would like to be victorious come January, the joy of being part of an esports team competing at the varsity level is not lost on the players.