These competitors can be found seated in front of a computer at Spruce Mountain High School or at home battling other teams across Maine.

No donning shoulder pads or picking up a field hockey stick and heading off to the playing field for these gamers, who play esports, which is competitive, organized video gaming on a worldwide scale.

Hunter Bibeau, a freshman at Spruce Mountain High School, plays League of Legends with his instructor in the school’s library and others at home Monday after school during an esports class. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The RSU 73 school board canceled Spruce’s football, field hockey and soccer seasons several weeks ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but allowed the cross country and golf teams to compete. The school’s students had another option to get their competition fix — esports, which is being sponsored for the first time this fall by the Maine Principals’ Association.

“It is basically competitive video games,” Jeremy Gath, a teacher at Spruce and coach of the esports team, said. “We play on the school network. We currently have six computers with good enough hardware and specs and stuff that they can keep up with most of the games that we play.

“Due to COVID, some people can also tune in at home. We’ve got some chat servers and stuff like that we can use in order to stay in contact with people. From there, we practice and we play live games. We can do scrimmages with pretty much everybody in the country, as well, but for the most part, we are staying in-state at the moment.”

A few area schools considered starting esports programs this fall, but Spruce Mountain is the only team that decided to move forward. Central Maine Community College started an esports program in 2019.

Two players for the Phoenix’s esports teams enjoy the competitive nature of being a gamer. Freshman Brandon Adams, a member of the Rocket League team, said that esports also is a great way to congregate with other students.

“I want to get better and be a better teammate and work good with my teammates,” he said. “I wanted to get to know some people and get better at the game and have fun.”

Phoenix sophomore Sam “Key” Duggan-Barker views esports competition as a way “to winning for our school, and gaining a reputation like no other — if we win any type of preseason tournament.”

“I used to be apart of an Overwatch team,” Duggan-Barker added, “until they disbanded last year … due to copyright reasons. I am currently the captain of the Rocket League esports team, alongside two other really good players.”

If you think esports is just a bunch kids playing sophisticated videos games, well, you are right. But also know that esports is wildly popular and raking in big bucks, and has been for years.

A CNN article in 2018 said: “According to research from Newzoo, esports revenue will reach $906 million worldwide in 2018. By the end of 2018, 1.6 billion people will have some knowledge of esports — that’s more than one fifth of the entire world’s population. So if you haven’t heard much about esports yet, give it time. Its spread, both globally and culturally, is inevitable.”

Gath said he is still organizing teams as the season gets underway.

“We are playing three games this season,” Gath said. “One of them is called Rocket League. The rules are kind of like soccer. You just play it with video-game, rocket-powered cars that can do flips in the air and go in all sorts of different directions.”

The other two games include League of Legends, in which there are teams of five that compete against each other.

“The easiest way to describe that one is like each one is defending its own territory in sort of its own caste,” Gath said. “The job of the other team is to basically breach each others castles … and they each have their own sort of characters that you can pick from with different abilities, and you are also earning resources that you can use to buy better items and gear to hopefully take down your opponent.”

There is also another game that is similar to League of Nations that is also being offered.

Competitive esports is open to any student who wants to give it a try.

“Pretty much if you’ve got two working thumbs and a couple of working fingers and a keyboard, you can play,” Gath said. 

Gath pointed out that the highly competitive nature of esports keeps students, who are not interested in a physical sport, engaged.

“I am noticing a lot, which is the kids that I am getting, that a lot of them, they don’t have your typical sports-player personality,” Gath said. “It helps people get out of their shell and engaged in a part of school.

“The other cool thing, and I am hoping to get this established, but it is a bit of tech work in the background, is we could possibly do some online streaming on a site called Twitch. Folks from home — parents included — could definitely tune in and watch all the games.”

Gath, who acts as a coach and overseer, said he is “coaching three different games, which is like coaching three different sports for sort of the price of one.” 

“I am hoping in the future — if this ends up working out — we can get more coaches working, as well,” he added. 

Gath heard about the esports program through Spruce athletic director Marc Keller, who began making inquiries about what technology was needed to bring the esports program to fruition.

Keller said he received an informational letter from the Maine Principals’ Association during the spring about esports. He also met with PlayVS — the company that runs the esports program.

“I’ve got a former student (Steve Swatling) of mine who is a teacher in the bush of Alaska,” Keller said. “So we are going to be having a competition here in the next couple of weeks. We are going to set up a scrimmage between us and them so it will be kind of cool to play a team from interior Alaska.”

Gath, who also coaches Spruce Mountain’s girls tennis team, didn’t hesitate when the esports coaching position opened up.

“I looked at it and I looked at the possibility of no tennis in the spring, and I said, ‘You know, let’s give this a shot,” Gath, who is enjoying the challenge, said.

Like physical sports, he said, esports wins count as a way to advance to the playoffs. He said a few Spruce football players are also involved in esports, for which there will be fall and spring seasons.

“The beauty of this (program) is, because we are working with an online chat server called Discord, as long as they can play at home, (they can) do their own practice pretty much whenever,” Gath said.

He added that the time commitment is the same as coaching the girls tennis team, but there is different type of intensity due to the high technology involved in running esports.

“Tennis is like you show up. You bring the equipment and you set it up. That is pretty much it,” he said. “For this (program), there is a lot of computer setup. There is a lot of getting everything like that working.

And, there is still a lot of educating about the nature of esports.

“It is hard sometimes to get players to show because a lot of parents aren’t treating this like a sport. They are treating it like, ‘Oh, you are just going to school to play video games with your friends.’” Gath said. “Yes, we are doing that, but we are competing with video games, not playing them.

“The biggest analogy for it is it is the difference between playing catch in your backyard and competing on the high school team.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.