More Stark County-area schools are offering esports

Learning the art of performing a double jump for a key goal in Rocket League. Knowing the best time to trigger Reaper’s “Death Blossom” ultimate to clear an objective in Overwatch. Emerging as the sole survivor from a hot drop at the “Boney Burbs” in Fortnite.

All things parents may have classified as a waste of time in past years. 

Oh, how the times change.

These skills don’t just help players climb online game leaderboards, they now can lead a high school team to victory and possibly help players secure college scholarships. Welcome to the emerging world of local high school esports.

A Canton Repository survey of Stark County-area schools found that Alliance, Canton City, Lake, Minerva and Sebring have started an esports team within the past two years. Carrollton, Jackson, Plain, North Canton, Sandy Valley and Tuslaw are exploring competitive video gaming with some of them hoping to start a team as soon as this upcoming school year. 

Sebring Superintendent Toni Viscounte said her district became among the first schools in the area to offer esports in fall 2019 for a multitude of reasons. 

“Video games are becoming more and more mainstream,” she said. “From streaming to YouTube to even podcasts, gaming is becoming a big part of our students’ culture. We wanted to offer the students a structured way to engage in their favorite activities, inspire competition and recognize their achievements within our school system.”

She said esports also offers students, who might not compete or engage in other after-school activities, a chance to feel a sense of competition and accomplishment.

Minerva Superintendent Gary Chaddock said administrators were approached by a group of students about starting a program, which the district began last school year.

“As a district, we are always looking for ways for our students to be involved in the school,” said Chaddock, who said Minerva didn’t field a team this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. “We thought this was an opportunity to provide a positive experience for our students.”

School leaders said they are finding that esports is attracting players who are not interested in traditional sports.  

“We found that 80% of the kids we have really aren’t doing any other sports,” McKinley High School esports head coach Tyler Smith said. “A lot of them have never played a sport at all. It’s a good opportunity for these kids to come out and be part of something. They all have a lot of fun. It’s a really good program.”

Alliance esports coach David Hammers said the district started its team in fall 2019 after recognizing that colleges were offering scholarships to players. The Alliance team boasted 40 players this year (some played only in the fall or spring), including 12 middle school students.

In Ohio, at least 17 colleges and universities, including the University of Mount Union, Kent State University, University of Akron and Ohio State University, offer varsity esports programs. Nearly all of them also offer a partial or full-ride scholarship for esports athletes.

High school players also have a chance to compete for more than $100,000 in scholarships and other prizes during the tournament at the end of each season.

Esports explosion

Canton City Schools has Stark County’s newest esports teams, starting this past spring with about a dozen players.

Smith, a McKinley High School Spanish teacher who volunteered to be the esports coach, said once word of the program reached students, it exploded in popularity.

“Students are notoriously bad about checking email,” Smith said with a laugh. “Once word got out from the few that did, we picked up 20 kids very quickly. Interest kept growing from there. We are expecting to have double or triple that number for next season.”

The story is similar in the Lake Local School District where play began in spring 2020.

The club began with 12 players that first season. The number has since grown to nearly 40 students.

Lake head coach Dustin Gosseck said students aren’t just playing the games in the Lake program. They are also learning how to build computers for gaming.

“We worked with our student tech program,” Gosseck said. “The kids learned how to build a computer from scratch out of components and how to solve some of the hardware and software problems that go along with that process. That’s a skill that I think could really come in handy for them later in life.”

He said building their own computers also has helped keep costs low for the esports program. They used donated computers and spent roughly $5,000 to build gaming computers.

Local school districts reported spending an average of $9,000 to start up their esports programs. Some districts, such as Minerva, used existing equipment and didn’t have additional startup expenses. Others, such as Alliance and Canton, spent more than $12,000 on their equipment.

Esports features Overwatch, Rocket League, Fortnite and more

The goal of the head coach in esports at this level isn’t necessarily to give specific advice about the game. 

Gosseck said he was familiar with Overwatch but he had never previously played Rocket League. The Lake team competes in both. 

“It’s more about teaching the kids how to work together as a team and communicate with each other,” Gosseck said. “These games are very specialized and some of the kids that come in are playing at such a high level that they are beyond needing any advice on those skills.”

The role at Canton City is similar for the head coach whose team competed in Fortnite and Rocket League this year and may add teams for Overwatch, Vaolorant and NBA 2K21, giving players even more gaming opportunities going forward.

“I’m in charge of making sure we are registered for leagues,” Smith said. “I also serve as kind of a proxy for the tech department and I work to troubleshoot things like mics not working and making sure accounts are connected. I also try to help the kids with their communication skills and try to help them with strategic planning.” 

Reach Cliff at cliff.hickman@cantonrep.com.

On Twitter: @chickmanREP

Reach Kelli at 330-580-8339 or kelli.weir@cantonrep.com.

On Twitter: @kweirREP

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