SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) — Computer mice, monitors, headsets and keyboards are not the typical gear used for sports.
Yet kids who grew up playing video games online and on gaming consoles are finding their skills sought after and rewarded for a different type of competitive challenge — esports.
Those students now have opportunities to receive college scholarships for their talents, skills the Riverside School District is hoping to foster with help from Lackawanna College.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Seth Bouselli, a Riverside senior.
The district’s school board voted this month to add an after school esports club beginning next school year. Riverside is the first district in Lackawanna County and most of the region to officially facilitate esports, although other superintendents express interest in finding out more about the emerging industry. Students in the club will join one or more yet-to-be-determined leagues and compete against other teams virtually in competitive video games.
Riverside has yet to set aside a designated meeting space for the esports club and is researching grants to help fund the high-powered technology needed to compete, said Superintendent Paul Brennan.
The district in Taylor and Moosic is partnering with Lackawanna College in Scranton, which is the first college in the region to offer an advanced esports facility. Lackawanna has full and partial scholarships available for students to play varsity esports. Misericordia University in Dallas will be the first in Luzerne County to offer a program.
Riverside students, including seniors Coby Sophabmixay and Seth Bouselli and junior Sebastian Hutchins, recently toured Lackawanna College’s facility. They were in awe of the room illuminated by blue glowing lights.
“I loved it,” Seth said. “The whole atmosphere of the room was amazing.”
“It was incredible actually,” added Sebastian. “One of the coolest experiences I’ve had.”
Playing at the college level
A selection of 24 advanced Alienware desktops and monitors made for gaming make up the room in a somewhat secluded area of the college. In the middle, there are six computers for the students to compete in groups. The team’s head coach and program administrator, Teddy Delaney, projects competitions onto two large screens hanging from either wall.
On Monday, about four students wearing Hyperx Cloud headsets bantered and practiced for matches in between classes. Delaney joked that the facility has the best Internet connection in the city.
Lackawanna is one of 141 colleges in the country to offer a varsity esports program, he said. In 2018, only 66 colleges did.
While the start-up costs are expensive — each gamin station, which includes a desktop, chair, keyboard and mouse, in the Lackawanna College facility costs around $3,000 — there’s little transportation costs involved. Lackawanna students have competed from Scranton against schools across the country, including Boise State in Idaho and Harvard University, Delaney said.
The Lackawanna College team plays three popular games: Rocket League, which is “soccer with cars;” Overwatch, a battle strategy game; and League of Legends, a multi-player online battle arena game, Delaney said.
Delaney, who played in amateur leagues in college, thinks esports are comparable to traditional sports. The players have to work as a team, critically think and strategize, he said.
“These games are so insanely intricate and they’re all different that we literally look at them as their own sport,” he said.
Esports is also accessible to everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity or ability, said Sharon Lynett, Lackawanna College’s director of marketing and communications.
Riverside teacher Tom Borthwick, who chaperoned the students on their trip to the college, described the Lackawanna facility as a “nerd’s dream.”
The students took part in a “6 v 6,” as it is called in the gaming world, Overwatch scrimmage where six Riverside students battled against six Lackawanna students.
“It’s a perfect opportunity for someone like me … to get involved in something that we love, something that we’re good at,” Seth said.
Riverside’s interest in esports was sparked by a combination of things. The students all have access to laptops and during down time will watch people online playing video games, said Borthwick.
“It’s just like watching sports for them and that’s how they view it,” he said.
Borthwick and Brennan began discussing the growing trend. Last year, they surveyed seniors to find out how many would be interested in an esports club.
Sebastian and another classmate also started asking Brennan about adding a team.
“The trip over there (to Lackawanna College). that was an additional eye opener,” said Brennan.
To visit Lackawanna, the students had to perform academically, said Borthwick, who applied to advise the club next year.
“No one missed homework, no one missed school,” he said.
The students were fully engaged, Brennan said.
“It gave a sense of belonging to someone who might not be on the football team,” he said. “It’s something that they’re naturally engaged in and we could then, through that structured participation, hold them accountable for their other school work and their grades and their truancy issues.”
Brennan added that any tech purchased for the club will benefit the entire district since high-powered computers with lots of RAM and high-speed Internet are needed for gaming.
The students are excited their school will offer an esports team.
“We have a lot of kids who love esports and love gaming and some of them aren’t able to have that money to build a computer or anything like that,” said Seth, who will graduate this year. “They’ll be able to come here and play the games they love and might be able to compete for somewhere.”
Sebastian added, “Knowing that our school is doing that, is kind of exciting.”
Wild west of gaming
The esports industry is flush with cash and a little like the “wild west,” Delaney said.
There’s a number of leagues people can play in. Lackawanna, who is part of the National Association of Collegiate Esports, is in the process of creating its own conference with a league schedule, he said.
Esports parts ways from traditional sports at the collegiate and high school level with opportunities for sponsorships and the chance to win prize money.
Lackawanna College’s team is sponsored by Mountain Dew’s Game Fuel and local businesses. Money the students win at competitions is put into a bursar’s account and must first be used for school, including tuition, books and meal plans, Delaney said. At graduation, if they have money left in the account, they get a check, he said.
Like traditional college athletes, most won’t play esports on a professional level, Delaney said. The Lackawanna students, who must be full time students and maintain a 2.0 GPA, graduate with a degree to fall back on.
Riverside students will also be expected to keep up their academics, as with any other sports team.
“Weekly GPA and attendance eligibility requirements must be met in order to participate,” Brennan said. “There will also be requirements in which a participant must be involved in at least one additional sport or club on campus and participate in community service.”
Valley View senior Dominic Clapper, a consistent honor roll student, and his brother, Tony Clapper, a Keystone College student, received partial scholarships to play esports at Lackawanna next year. Tony Clapper is planning to transfer.
Dominic Clapper described himself as “heavy gamer” growing up who played everything from Pokemon to The Legend of Zelda.
“It’s amazing being able to play video games in college,” Dominic Clapper said. “I didn’t think it was possible at first. I only knew of the pro-levels.”
Dominic Clapper, who also enjoys playing soccer, plans to compete in Rocket League at Lackawanna while he studies software engineering.
“It’s the way of the future,” he said. “It’s going to be a part of the world for a long time.”
The Western Wayne School district has a student-run after-school esports club but otherwise the industry and incorporating it into extracurricular offerings is new but not unfamiliar to most districts.
“Anything that could channel our kids’ minds, especially when it comes to these types of games … I would absolutely be open to it,” said Carbondale Area Superintendent Robert Mehalick. “This is a major part of our students’ lives.”
Esports is on the Mid Valley School District’s radar, said Superintendent Pat Sheehan.
“We obviously know it’s becoming a very popular industry,” he said.
Riverside is predicting that the student interest and engagement for the esports club will be off the charts, Brennan said.
“It’s going to morph into something much larger in a hurry,” he said. “I truly think with the advancements in technology, it will take over real sports at some point.”
Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/