Katie Szustak and Hannah Poulin, of Lewiston, play with some of the video games at Central Maine Community College’s esports open house in April 2019. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file photo

Schools in central and western Maine have begun moving forward with participating in the inaugural high school esports season this fall.

On Thursday night, the RSU 73 school board listened to a presentation from athletic director Marc Keller about forming an esports team at Spruce Mountain High School and possibly Spruce Mountain Middle School. Other schools are in the planning stages as well.

Last month, the Maine Principals’ Association announced it would begin offering esports as a co-curricular activity this fall.

Esports, or online gaming, has grown exponentially at the high school and college levels in a short amount of time. In 2018, the National Federation of State High School Associations began holding championships, and several states, including  Massachusetts and Rhode Island, joined in.

One of the reasons esports have become increasingly popular with schools is it appeals to students who don’t normally participate in extracurricular activities. Keller cited a study that showed 80% of students that have joined esports never participated in another activity in their school career.

“Eighty-four percent of those… first-year players say that they finally found a community that they felt connected to,” Keller said. “Really, what I’m looking at is reaching out to more students, students that have different aspirations and that we can target with this kind of programming.”

Esports in Maine would have two seasons, fall and spring, with a championship at the end of each season. Schools can opt to participate in one season or both.

Schools can have one or more teams participate and even form junior varsity teams with enough interest. Schools have a choice of four online games to play: Fortnite, Smite, League of Legends and Rocket League

“There are two-player leagues, three-player leagues and five-player leagues,” Keller said. “Overall, we’re looking at a 10-to-12-week preseason, season and playoff.”

Matches are held once per week and last one to two hours, Keller said. The “fall” season would start in October and run through December, followed by the “spring” season, which would start in February.

Keller said he’s hoping to have 15-25 students participate per season. Students would have to maintain the same academic requirements that apply to other sports to remain eligible to participate.

Interest in esports goes beyond the high school, Keller said.

“As I was leaving school today, (Spruce Mountain Middle School athletic director) Craig Collins stopped me and said ‘Make sure you let (the school committee) know that the middle school wants to do it, too,'” Keller said. “So I’m already seeing interest spread and we haven’t really even started yet.”

Dirigo athletic director Jessica McGreevy said she surveyed students at her high school and students who will be entering as freshmen in the fall and got a swift and enthusiastic response.

“I had a half-dozen replies right away and about a dozen overall, and I think we’ll get a few more,” she said.

A proposal to start an esports program hasn’t been brought before the RSU 56 school committee yet, but McGreevy hopes to get approval in time to start in the fall.

McGreevy said the proposal would likely include having gamers use school-issued laptops to participate. She would likely limit the school’s initial participation to League of Legends, a multiplayer battle arena game, in the fall, so she doesn’t anticipate the cost to exceed $2,000. Most of the money would be needed to cover the $64 per student fee plus a stipend for the team coach.

“We’d like to do this within our existing budget parameters,” she said.

Keller said start-up costs at Spruce Mountain would likely include purchasing five computers totaling $2,500 as well as “a couple of accessories that some of the kids may have that they could bring in. Really, we’re looking at keyboards and mice, so nothing expensive, and then the possibility of headsets and a microphone, which a lot of our kids would have.”

“The cost of the league is $1,000 for the first year that would be both seasons,” Keller said. “Every year after that, it’s $2,000, or, if we have a small group, we could go with what’s called a student pass, which is $64 per kid, which basically gets us about 15 participants in that season.”

Keller said start-up costs for esports are comparable to a cross country team and much lower than sports that require expensive equipment, such as lacrosse or ice hockey. Travel expenses would be negligible since a team wouldn’t have to travel to compete unless and until it reaches the state championship.

Both McGreevy and Keller noted that esports wouldn’t have to be halted in the event of a pandemic like spring sports were when they were canceled due to the coronavirus.

“It’s really one of the only sports out there right now that can be played while we’re still observing these social distancing guidelines and remote learning,” Keller said.

The MPA is partnering with PlayVS to provide the online platform for schools to use and manage their teams, which the company does for high schools and colleges nationwide.

“They basically do all of the scheduling, results posting, managing of playoffs. They work with our tech department for installation and troubleshooting, so they really kind of handle everything,” Keller said. “We just have to provide equipment, athletes and a coach. And when I say coach, that’s kind of a loose term. They really are more there for troubleshooting during events and advising and chaperoning more than necessarily coaching skills and strategies and things like that.”

The timing of the MPA’s announcement was too late for some schools who had already completed or advanced far into their budget season to include it among their fall extracurricular offerings.

Edward Little athletic director Todd Sampson said he was excited to hear the announcement but it “came after the pandemic struck and we were out of school. Coupled with the fact that my budget has been submitted and approved by the school committee, we are past the point of making additions.”

“I do believe there will be very large interest among the Red Eddies student body to develop a program in the coming years,” he said. “Unfortunately, I do not see EL sponsoring an esports team this fall.”

The deadline for schools to register for this fall is September. The RSU 73 board tabled the proposal until its next meeting, scheduled for June 25.

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