Today I had the pleasure of taking our Overwatch 2 team to the state tournament as part of the Iowa High School Esports Association (https://www.iahsea.org/). We finished the regular season 6-1 and entered the tournament as the #3 seed. We won the first round against Williamsburg HS but would lose the next round to Linn-Mar, the eventual state champs for Division 1. That sent us to the match for 3rd place against Marshalltown HS, the same team we started our season with during our Week 0 scrimmage, but although we fought hard, we could not get the win. We ended up getting 4th place in Division 1 (the large school division), and that is still a great finish to our first season of Esports at Ames High School.
No matter what place this team would finish with, this season was already a huge success. I started having conversations back in January 2020 about how we could do Esports at Ames High School. Back then, I was the Director of Technology for the district but I had seen so many positive things about starting an Esports program that I knew I wanted to find a way to support that for my own district. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic and my decision to leave my position meant that I would have to abandon my plans, or so it would seem.
I went to Nevada HS in the next town over, which had already started the process of having an Esports team. Of course, as soon as I started at that district, I joined as a volunteer coach (meaning no pay, and I was donating my time). I did not care that I was not going to get paid for my time. I just knew I wanted to make sure this program would get started and would be there for the students. Esports has a ton of benefits that not everyone thinks about or can even see. There are students who go out for Esports who do not go out for any other activity. Having that connection to a school activity can be enough of a reason to try a little harder in class to make sure you are eligible to play. I would be told countless times by some of our Esports students that this was the reason they made sure to go to class and get their work done. This was engaging them in the process of school. We had students who were involved in other activities, and we would always do our best to make sure they could do both. This also created a social opportunity for students who may not have interacted much in the past.
Esports can also lead to many opportunities after high school. There are countless programs at 2 and 4-year colleges throughout Iowa and the rest of the United States. We have had coaches from these programs come to talk to our students about scholarship opportunities as well as academic programs connected to Esports. Esports as a business is booming, and there are so many job opportunities for someone besides just being a gamer. From being an editor, on-air shout caster, manager, or even helping to create all of the live stream or social media graphics, there are so many career fields that have grown thanks to Esports.
Eventually, I would return to Ames High School this last fall and I had a few goals, but at the top of them was to get the Esports program started. I sent a survey out to students to gauge interest, I talked to other teachers who may have been interested in helping out, I became the sponsor for the Gaming Club, and I started to seek donations to help get this program started. We joined the Iowa High School Esports Association, which includes over 90 schools in Iowa, and chose the Winter season as our first season of Esports. We had over 24 students show up to that first practice, much more than I expected but I was excited to see the large interest. While some of them would not show up to too many practices, we had a core group of around 13 players that wanted to be there for every practice.
We had the computers, thanks to the purchases made for our Autocad lab as part of the new high school construction, and I was able to get some equipment donated. We started the season hot and won our first 6 matches before losing our last match of the regular season. We had a joint practice with a college program and learned a ton from some very experienced players and coach. We would practice playing in person with a nearby school to get ready for the state tournament atmosphere where you were no longer playing a faceless opponent, but instead, your opponent was at the computer across from you. We drove down to the tournament and played hard, walking away with a 4th-place finish. I could not be happier.
This season was a huge success and while I am happy with all of the work that I did, it would not have happened without that first batch of students taking the chance on what so many people will not understand. We still have to explain what Esports is to many people despite it being so popular across the world. No, we are not just playing video games. We are learning teamwork, how to grow from failure, communicate effectively with your team, study your opponent, and game plan. We learned how to be a team that supports each other and helps each other become better players. We learned how to do a live stream and how we should not let me devise the slogan for our state tournament t-shirts.
Now we will take a whole day to rest before starting our spring season of Team Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on Monday. I may still be donating all of my time and energy to getting this program going, but watching the students in practices and at the tournaments, knowing the impact this can have on them, makes it all worth it. Stay tuned for what happens next; we are just getting started.
Sidenote: We are still working on getting this to be a paid coaching thing just like other activities and sports, and if you are a school that wants to be serious about helping students with the creation of an Esports team – pay your coaches, show them the support that way. They can only do this on a volunteer basis for so long.