The first known eSports competition took place in 1972 at Stanford University. Some 45 years later, eSports has made its way to the local high school scene in Wisconsin.
High school eSports was first introduced in Wisconsin three years ago when the Wisconsin High School Esports Association (WIHSEA) was formed. But what exactly is eSports?
“We play competitive video games against other schools,” said Justin Watson, head of the Milton High School eSports club. “Each week we practice and try to hone our skills, work on teamwork and communication. Every week we match up with another school in the state.”
New schools are joining each year. Originally seven schools made up the WIHSEA, but now over 25 schools make up the association just two years later. Fort Atkinson High School was one of the schools to join WIHSEA this year.
“We started toward the end of last school year with just talking about it and judging kids interest,” said Nate Daniels, head of the Fort Atkinson High School eSports club. “We were having 40 or 50 kids, like yeah, let’s do this.”
Out of those 40 or 50 kids, approximately 30 ended up coming out for the Fort Atkinson eSports team in its inaugural season.
There’s reason to believe those numbers will increase in the upcoming years though. Milton, which was part of the original seven high schools to get the WIHSEA formed, has seen an uptrend in participation from their first year.
“When we first started, we were part of the original seven schools putting it together,” Watson said. “We had a decent handful of kids and we were just doing League of Legends at the time. It’s grown, and they’ve added more games and schools to our association over the years.”
Watson said the Milton club currently has approximately 40 students rostered.
“It’s exciting to see it grow in the state,” Watson said.
Currently schools compete in four games: League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Not all schools play all four games. For example, Milton plays three of the four, with the Red Hawks not having an Overwatch team.
Just like in traditional high school sports, teams are separated into divisions based on enrollment. In Wisconsin eSports, teams are put into three separate divisions.
And just like in traditional high school sports, the year is broken down into seasons. Currently WIHSEA has two seasons, a fall and a spring season.
In fall it’s Overwatch and Super Smash Bros Ultimate. In spring it’s Rocket League and League of Legends.
Watson is hoping there are changes to the current seasonal format to get more traditional athletes to be able to come aboard.
“It’s something we’re looking to align with the traditional sports in the next year,” Watson said. “It will be easier for students who play a sport in the fall and want to join. Getting those to lineup better would be good.”
While a stereotypical view may disagree with Watson, that kids who play a traditional sport would not be interested in eSports, that hasn’t been the case.
“There are few kids who said as soon as the football season is done, or cross country is done, ‘I’m in here,’” Daniels said.
Just like in football and in cross country, teams play for a common goal: a state championship. The fall season’s state championship will take place in December. While teams will compete throughout the regular season against each other online at their respective schools, they all come together for the state championship in Madison.
Last season Milton took second at the League of Legends State Championship.
“It was cool to get all the schools together,” Watson said.
“It was just a really hype moment for the them,” Watson said. “It made it real for them a lot of the kids.”
Speaking of real, while eSports can be a fun outlet for kids just like traditional sports, there are some real benefits for getting good behind the screen.
There are over 100 Universities that offer scholarships for eSports.
“I think that has gotten a lot of parents on board,” Watson said. “They’re not just playing video games to just goof off and have fun. There’s more to it now for some of these kids, especially some of the highly skilled kids. I think that’s brought a lot of parents on board.”
“The opportunities behind this are amazing,” Daniels said.
“Kids are getting four-year scholarships to universities and big universities to play competitive eSports.”
According to the WIHSEA website, two students from the state of Wisconsin have received college scholarships to continue their eSports career.
Plus, there are more than just scholarships for kids.
“It’s an opportunity for these kids to get involved in their school,” Watson said. “Previously some of these kids couldn’t care less about school spirit. All of the sudden they’re excited to come to school. They want to do well in their classes. They make friends here. You see seniors hanging out with freshman, breaking down some of these barriers.”