William Dumond, 15, from left, Titus Willey, 14, and Nathan Corey, 15, play Rocket League during an esports match at Temple Academy in Waterville in late October. Temple is one of 12 high schools that have been competing in esports during its debut in Maine this fall. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

It didn’t look like a sport, but it started to sound like one.

The players coordinated with one another about where to go and what to do. The coaches hovered behind them, offering tips and instruction. The pace of the action was fast, if not hectic, and any player who stands still for a moment can fall behind.

“Guys!” the head coach shouted. “You have to rotate!”

Before long, the team struck for a goal to take a 1-0 lead.

“Let’s go!” one of the players cried out, followed by a round of fist bumps.

The action was not taking place on a soccer field, but in a computer lab at Waterville’s Temple Academy, with players seated side-by-side at laptops. They were playing a video game against a Cony High team whose players were competing from their own homes, communicating with one another via headsets.

Welcome to the newest high school sport in Maine: esports.

This fall, the Maine Principals’ Association is offering esports as a sanctioned activity for the first time, joining a soaring number of high school organizations and colleges across the nation that have embraced video games as competition over the past five years. Maine high school students from 12 schools are participating in the inaugural season.

Esports has grown into a billion-dollar industry, with televised championships that draw millions of viewers. Some colleges, including Thomas College in Waterville, offer scholarships to gamers.

Teamwork is as essential in esports as it would be in a basketball or football game. But teams – or even teammates – don’t necessarily have to be in the same room as each other. In fact, most Maine high school teams are competing remotely, with players using computers at home, sharing screens and communicating through headsets on Discord, an online platform that allows players to talk while sharing a computer screen. Gamers use a keyboard and mouse, or a hand-held device, while playing.

Maine schools compete in two leagues: League of Legends, a five-player arena battle game in which each player selects a virtual character with unique abilities, such as a marksman or combat fighter; and Rocket League, a soccer game in which rocket-powered vehicles boot an oversized ball in a domed stadium where the roof and walls are in play. League of Legends is played on Tuesdays against teams from across the nation, while Rocket League is played among Maine teams on Thursdays.

Assistant executive director Mike Bisson said the principals’ association “got a lot of pushback” when it announced it was going to offer esports. “People asked why is the MPA involved in video games?” he said. “They said it wasn’t a healthy activity.”

But the MPA began to offer esports in the hopes of luring students who otherwise might not be involved in extracurricular activities, or even students from different social backgrounds.

Jason Lund, who calls himself the general manager of the Cape Elizabeth team, says that is precisely what has happened.

“You get a lot of students from a lot of different cliques getting engaged, students who have a desire for competition, just not as an athlete,” said Lund, who is an administrator in Cape Elizabeth’s IT department, serving both the town and school. “And they have found a niche where they can come together and participate.”

STRONG INTEREST FROM THE START

High school students at 12 schools compete in two leagues: Deering, Cony, Maine Central Institute, Spruce Mountain, Sumner, Oak Hill, Morse, Piscataquis, Waterville, Cape Elizabeth, Temple Academy and Westbrook Regional Technology Center.

The fall season began in mid-October and will run through December. Interest has been high from the start – most schools have about a dozen players on their rosters, while Deering High had 23 players sign up – and Bisson expects many more teams to sign up for the spring season, which begins in January.

Deering High coach Cyle Davenport, center, and players Abdulaziz Haji, left and Mick Fennessy are part of the school’s new varsity esports team this fall. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

At Deering, head coach Cyle Davenport was getting daily emails from students who want to join the team. Abdulaziz Haji, a senior at Deering who plays Rocket League, isn’t surprised.

“It seems like every gamer wants to join the team and get to play in tournaments,” he said.

Mitchell Grohoski, a coach with the Temple Academy team, said he hears all the time that esports isn’t a “real” sport. The gamers think otherwise.

“Unlike other sports where it’s physical play, this is more mental,” said Temple gamer Billy Dumond. “You have to have a sharp mind and sharp reflexes to be able to perform your tasks. I don’t think people realize that. So what they think is, you’re just sitting behind a computer playing a game. But really you’re focusing and using your mind to come up with strategies and ideas of plays that will hopefully work in a game.”

Alex Maccio is a junior at Morse who plays football, basketball and Rocket League. Esports, he said, involves as much strategy as any physical sport.

“There’s a lot of call-outs and stuff that you can obviously do in football that you do in Rocket League,” he said. “Like in real sports there’s transitions and rotations, having people follow the ball and go on defense.”

And like other sports teams, they practice a lot. The big difference there is that they can practice just about anytime. “A lot of us play at night,” Maccio said.

Alex Maccio, at front, competes in a Rocket League game with teammates in the computer lab at Morse High. Coaches Brandon Murray, far left, and Brian LaFlamme, standing at the back, watch as Aidan Beecher, middle row, Cody Stewart, hidden behind computer, and Severen Deyer, seated in back row, take part in the game. Lindsey Goudreau photo

Coaches learned quickly to step aside once the game begins and let the players take over.

“Kids run the show,” said Lund, the Cape Elizabeth GM. “I’m trying to learn to be a good coach. I ask base questions – what are your plans? what are your goals? – and then I listen in on the coms. I make small suggestions and recommendations, but the kids are the experts in these games now.”

ESPORTS EXPLODE IN POPULARITY

The growth of esports at the collegiate and high school level has been substantial. In 2016, there were still only seven colleges offering esports teams. Now there are over 200, with many playing in either the ECAC or the National Association of Collegiate esports, or both. In Maine, Thomas College and Central Maine Community College have varsity programs. At Thomas College, which has a roster of 56 players, gamers can earn scholarships up to $5,000.

While the University of Maine does not offer esports, America East recently held its second Esports Invitational for its member schools, giving out $2,500 in scholarship funds.

Martin Schelasin, the coach of the team at Thomas, said esports has been a recruiting tool for the school.

“It’s undeniable that gaming has become an integrated piece of more and more generations,” said Schelasin, who was a competitive swimmer at Scarborough High. “And at the same time, we are engaging the students where they can develop leadership skills, analytical skills, and they gain an understanding of team dynamics at a level they normally wouldn’t.

“Maybe they haven’t been on teams before. Maybe they weren’t fond of overt physical activity. But if you’re meeting them on their field, the level of engagement we get, and the extent that we can help them develop those skills, is invaluable.”

Cody Stewart of Morse High competes in the video game Rocket League, one of two esports competitions being sponsored this fall for the first time at Maine high schools. Lindsey Goudreau photo

The National Federation of State High School Associations began offering esports in 2018, after it partnered with PlayVs, a Los Angeles company that provides the online platform that allows schools to manage their teams. Five states offered esports that first year. Now there are 23.

In addition to providing the online platform for the games, PlayVs provides technical support for the schools, sets up schedules and keeps standings. It has added an option this year for schools to schedule scrimmages against teams across the country. Maine schools have already played teams from Florida, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

“I think this shows kids that this is a global society,” said the MPA’s Bisson. “A kid from Maine can compete in something from all over the country and all over the world.”

And now, with the coronavirus pandemic forcing more people inside, esports is providing an opportunity for gamers to continue to compete.

“COVID-19 ended the seasons of many traditional sports and intramural activities before they even began this year,” said Alinn Louv, head of community for PlayVs. “Esports inherently gives everyone the opportunity to safely participate in a sport remotely or in-person. We’ve seen a huge spike in interest in the midst of the pandemic.”

MCI, Morse, Piscataquis and Temple Academy all have rooms where the players gather to compete, but many teams compete remotely.

“Obviously, with COVID, kids are itching to connect with other kids and have something to do,” said Davenport, the Deering coach. “This is a sport that lends itself well to being remote. It would be nice to sit in the same room and talk about the different plays in the game. (Being remote) makes it a little harder. But it’s still possible. You can share screens and you can see each other. Most of it still works very well.”

And then there are the scholarships. While many gamers just love to play, knowing that there is a potential financial payoff at the end of your high school career certainly helps.

“This is great; it’s something I was going to talk to someone about in future,” said Dalton Johnstone, a sophomore at Morse. “So I can turn a hobby of mine into something competitive? (Getting a scholarship) is in the back of my head, knowing if I do well I could be given one.”

Steve Scoville, a volunteer coach at Cony High, said esports at the high school level will evolve over time as other sports have. Having schools sponsor esports, he added, takes it to another level.

“I think that organized competition really changes the nature of how kids feel about what they’re doing,” said Scoville. “Kids are going to be playing Rocket League anyway. But if you can … play Rocket League and wear the Cony jersey while you’re doing it, I think that’s pretty cool.”

Bisson of the principals’ association predicts more schools will take part in the spring season. More would have participated this fall, he said, but they were busy making adjustments to reopen schools during the pandemic.

“There were many schools that indicated they were interested, but with everything going into making sure they could open schools (over the summer), they didn’t have time to get things going,” said Bisson. “I think the numbers will continue to grow exponentially.”

Rohan Yadav, a sophomore at Cape Elizabeth High, was on the school’s swimming team last winter and hopes to run track next spring. This fall, he is part of Cape’s varsity esports team.

“Video games are a big part of my life,” said Yadav, 15. “To actually represent my school is a big thing.”


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