With fall sports canceled, Northwest Arctic Borough schools look to form eSports teams

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 games. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

With fall sports canceled in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, officials say they’re moving to get students involved in the emerging realm of competitive eSports.

“Kids will be able to form teams where they’ll compete in two sanctioned sports under ASAA, Alaska School Activities Association,” said Brett Slaathaug, activities coordinator for the school district.

One of the two sanctioned sports is Rocket League, a video game where players play soccer using rocket-powered vehicles. The other is League of Legends, a game where players control avatar-like “champions” and work together to destroy an enemy team’s base. 

ASAA began conducting competitive eSports last year in Alaska schools, with 46 schools competing in the inaugural season. Slaathaug says the district is hopeful that students will gain benefits they’d normally get from cross-country running and volleyball.

“We know that activities drive a lot of desire to come to school every single day, get the homework done, keep the grades up, keep the behavior good,” Slaathaug said. “It just helps in every which way.”

With much of the state’s most populated communities currently in the red zone with respect to COVID-19 spread, Slaathaug says the district doesn’t want to risk the safety of its student athletes. He says the state is looking to potentially adjust the schedules for several sports that students in the region compete in, including wrestling and basketball. He also floated the idea of conducting more regional sports activities should cases remain low in the area, though all of that is still up in the air.

For now, Slaathaug says he hopes eSports will help the students in the Northwest Arctic Borough, who normally compete against 1A, 2A and 3A schools, to interact with competitors they wouldn’t normally.

“There’s going to be situations where our schools are going to compete against 4A schools from Colony [High School] or some 1A schools from the Southeast. And so it’s going to be a pretty neat experience because they’re going to connect with a lot of different schools from different divisions that they typically don’t.”

Slaathaug says the district is hoping to get teams put together by the beginning of the eSports pre-season in October. He says as many as 11 new teams could be formed, adding to the growing statewide competition.