Students compete in Alaska’s first sanctioned eSports state championship

picture of three high school male students playing League of Legends in an eSports lounge at the University of Alaska Anchorage
East High School students (from left to right) Tom Cabanilla, Dragon Lee, and Lorry Lee play the video game League of Legends online against Petersburg High School during the first sanctioned eSports state championship playoff. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Esports, or competitive video gaming, has been steadily growing in Alaska schools for the past few years. The new activity is helping foster community within schools. East High School in Anchorage recently competed against Petersburg for a spot in Alaska’s first sanctioned eSports state championship game.

It was a quiet start to the match between the two teams.

It’s the first time they have played against each other. But East High senior and team member Tom Cabanilla said his team is ready to go. 

“This is the playoffs, so we’re pretty excited,” he said. “My team’s pretty hype right now. We’re going to get this easy dub and then move on to the next round.”

But there aren’t any cheerleaders or physical spectators for the playoff game at the University of Alaska Anchorage eSports lounge – except those watching the live stream on Twitch. Petersburg’s team isn’t even in the same city. It’s just Cabanilla, his five other teammates at their computers along with their coach, and a few UAA staff and students milling around.

Competitive gaming is a relatively cheap activity. There are some start-up costs and schools do need computers and a solid broadband internet connection, but teams don’t have to travel to compete. Over the past few years, more and more schools across the state have started eSports clubs and teams.

But this is the first school year that the Alaska School Activities Association has had a sanctioned eSports program. That means schools across Alaska can officially compete against each other under the same rules and regulations. The association says about 46 teams participated across the two types of official video games this season: Rocket League and League of Legends. 

“It’s not very often where you get a teacher telling a kid to play more video games,” said East High School eSport team coach Bradley Smith.

A math teacher by day, Smith says he started a pilot eSport program last year and is happy to have more support. But, he said, it’s been hard communicating a positive narrative to the community.

“We get a lot of stigma about [people who say] why would I want to pay the $190 for the activity fee for my kids to play video games, when they can just play it at home,” he said. “So that’s been a bit tough to get through.”

A picture of students seated at computers during competition with their coach looking over the student's shoulders
East High School math teacher and eSports Coach Bradley Smith (standing) watches the game play during the competition. He says his job is to make sure the students are communicating effectively with each other and the other team, rather than advising them on how to play the game. (Mayowa Aina/ Alaska Public Media)

Smith explained there are tangible benefits including scholarships that students can earn from playing eSports. And, he added, it helps provide students who otherwise wouldn’t participate in after school programs with an activity they can get involved in. 

The relationship between team members on the bEast sports team, as they call themselves, is one of their strengths, Smith said.

“They hang out with each other outside of school and not when we’re in here, so they have a pretty good friendship going around which helps out quite a bit,” he said. “I see them playing all the time so [they’re] just a good group of kids I think.”

That community and involvement is part of why Cabanilla said he joined the team. He had played League of Legends before but recently picked it back up to play for East with his friends.

A picture of East High School senior and team member Tom Cabanilla at his computer playing League of Legends during the playoff competition
East High School senior and eSports team member Tom Cabanilla during the playoff game. He plays Top Laner in League of Legends, and has become an advocate for eSports at East High. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

“Senior year, I have a lot of regrets especially not joining too many sports because I just didn’t want to,” he said. “This is probably the only thing I can join right now, to enjoy the last moments of high school.”

Cabanilla has become an advocate for eSports at East, even getting his year book teacher to give the team some space for a feature, a back-to-back spread. He hopes it’ll bring the sport more exposure.

“Just so that people around school and the school district can realize how eSports is actually like a growing community now.”

He understands that some people aren’t quite sure what to make of eSports just yet, especially compared to more familiar sports like football or basketball. 

“But in the end it’s just like any other sport, we’re here for fun, we’re here to win, we’re here to compete.”

Despite some pre-game nerves, East was able to pull out a 2-0 win over Petersburg in the playoffs, and another over Stellar Secondary School, moving on to the final round. The team will play against Dimond High School in the State Championship game scheduled for Friday.