It’s game time and Petersburg High School’s e-sports team, Solstice, is competing against Angoon. Five Petersburg players are sitting around a table with their laptops open. They’re on the stage in the auditorium with a handful of people watching the video game projected on a big screen.
E-sports is growing in many high schools across Alaska. Forty-five schools this fall have video-gaming teams and that’s expected to double in the spring. The sanctioned sport will see its first fall season state tournament.
This group is playing the battle arena game, League of Legends. The game noise is pretty quiet. Mostly what you hear are the players talking to each other.
Senior, Jack Byrer, is at the table but he’s not playing. He’s the team’s coach and he’s guiding freshman, Malcolm Fry, through his first competition.
“You kinda do a little bit of math,” Byrer tells Fry. “Kinda think like, ‘Okay, so it’s here, I can maybe do one or two.”
One or two what, I’m not really sure. To be honest, no adults at the school likely have the skill set for this type of mentoring.
Before the game started I asked Fry about joining e-sports.
“I like it a lot, it’s fun,” Fry said. “You actually get to sit down. . .and have a fun time.”
He’s not the only freshman on the team. It’s Joseph Myrick’s first year too.
“I heard about it in 8th grade and I was like, this sounds like fun,” Myrick said. “I’d played League of Legends a long time before, back when I was in 7th grade, and yeah, I decided to come back to it for e-sports.”
As a freshman, Myrick is on the junior varsity team and he’s just watching the game and filling me in on how it works. Petersburg is in red and Angoon in blue. Each player has chosen their character from over 150, each with different skills. Myrick says the characters can get banned by other players.
“That’s why it’s definitely recommended that you play multiple characters and you know how to use them in different ways,” he said.
In League of Legends players have skill rankings. For starting junior varsity players, it’s usually around the 10’s and 20’s and seasoned varsity players can be over 100. Myrick says some players in the world are ranked over a thousand.
“Just because what we quote, ‘They don’t have a life’,” Myrick said, chuckling. “Because they’re shut-ins and they like to hide in their room or something like that and just play.”
That’s not the goal of these students.
“No, our goals are just to progress as much as we can and get better at the game,” Myrick said.
e-sports is about having a life as a high schooler. It creates a team environment for some students who otherwise aren’t connecting with their peers after school.
“We feel like it really has the potential to serve a bunch of students that for whatever reason none of our current offerings are really appealing to,” said Billy Strickland, the Executive Director of the Alaska School Activities Association.
“When schools start e-sports, usually right around 35 to 40 percent that get engaged weren’t engaged in any of your current offerings,” Strickland said. “This gives a student another reason to get involved.”
The ASAA sanctioned e-sports in April. That means, like other school activities, players need to keep good grades and follow other requirements to participate.
There are some technology challenges to e-sports. Broadband width can be a competitive factor. Strickland says in the future that might determine classifications in the sport more than school size. Also, PC computers are more compatible with some of the games than are Macs, which some schools use. But Strickland says the costs are minimal compared to other in person activities.
“Technically speaking, in a few weeks we could have Petersburg playing Barrow and there’s no cost of travel,” Strickland said.
Back in the Petersburg auditorium Rita Byrer watches the game on the big screen. She’s Jack Byrer’s grandmother and says she watched the team’s games last spring too.
“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “Not all kids want to do sports activities, physical activities. This sport is for those kids that, you know, they’re good at computers and that’s where they’re expertise lies rather than wrestling or basketball, so, I think it’s great.”
And for those keeping score, Petersburg ended up winning two games against Angoon.