Colorado wants to have an esports team in half of the high schools in the state. Meet the pioneering players on this journey

Mariana Marquez is a typical high school athlete. She trains with her team, meets coaches, and shows up on game day to face other high schoolers.

But unlike a college football player, her game isn’t on the grass. It’s in front of a screen.

Marquez is an esports player for Harrison High School in Colorado Springs.

“I play League of Legends,” she said. “It’s five against five, and everyone has different roles. You can either win by [completing an] goal or they can forfeit. It’s tower defense.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Mariana Marquez, center, is co-captain of the Harrison High School esports team.

The growing popularity of esports games has fueled dozens of professional leagues around the world. In terms of revenue, the industry is beating expectations, with numbers crossing the ten-digit threshold in 2020, according to some reports. And it could soon be legitimized on the biggest sporting stage in the world, with the International Olympic Committee hiring someone to lead its foray into virtual sports.

The state’s high school athletics authority has ambitious plans to expand esports to half of Colorado’s high schools. Rashaan Davis, who oversees esports for the Colorado High School Activities Association, said this year’s season was the busiest yet.

“There are over 100 teams playing multiple titles across our state,” Davis said. “We offer League of Legends, Rocket League, Madden and [Super Smash Bros. Ultimate].”

Students in the Harrison High School classroom which doubles as a gym, Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

An indispensable support system for students

Gamers have traditionally been labeled as socially awkward geeks. Harrison High coaches Tom McCartney and Sean Hart want to break that stigma. When they were in high school, they found solace in video games, but schools didn’t condone games on school grounds, let alone encourage them.

As teachers, and now coaches, they want to foster a safe environment for these goofy geeks to grow and develop their talents.

“These are the people who ended up being the entrepreneurs, the vanguards of new ideas, opportunities and waves,” said McCartney, an English and drama teacher. “Let’s build their confidence now, so they don’t have to wait 33 or 34 years to find each other and accept each other to finally start building a new world.

For many students at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood, the esports team is their only extracurricular activity. It’s an outlet that wouldn’t exist without the support of their school.

Harrison High School esports teammates prepare for a game on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

Seth Milota, a senior from Bear Creek who plays Super Smash Bros., said he was inspired to start the team because of the fond memories he had of playing with his old classmates in Illinois. . He said he approached his assistant manager with a pitch.

“He’s like, ‘I really want you to do one. I’ve wanted one for a while and nobody really stepped up,'” Milota said. “So I got to work.”

Daniel Pham plays League of Legends for Bear Creek but is not participating this year as they were unable to build a full five-man squad. Despite this, he is still active in the team’s Discord, a popular communication app in gaming communities, for the social aspect.

“Without eSports, I wouldn’t have friends who have already graduated and gone to college,” Pham said. “There are other seniors and juniors and different types of people that I had never met at my school.”

Harrison High School’s assistant esports coach, Sean Hart.

Esports can help students navigate future careers

While the primary goal of expanding esports in the state is to provide students with opportunities to thrive, there is an added benefit: resume materials.

For professional esports players competing in the Overwatch League, one of the most competitive and established leagues in the world, players earned an average base salary of $106,000.

However, this level of play is inaccessible for a large majority of amateur players. A more realistic goal for high schoolers is to play at the college level. Some universities recruit and offer partial scholarships to players. Notably, the University of Harrisburg in Pennsylvania offered full rides to their entire esports roster in 2018.

“I want to go to a college that has several different opportunities, if I’m able to play something that I really enjoy and get an education at the same time,” Marquez said.

Harrison High School assistant esports coach Sean Hart takes notes on the competitors.

Even if gamers don’t go to college with a team, the skills they’ve learned through esports — like building computers, communicating, and even playing the game itself — can help students build a future career.

“One of the possible careers I’m heading towards is game design,” said Milota, who wants to develop a fighting game. “When you understand a game down to its core mechanics, its frame data, its tiny little integrations, you can get such a sense of how the developers made it and you can take little stylistic choices and integrate yourself.”

Accessibility is a concern

A major issue for schools is providing materials for students to play. With hardware ranging from a few hundred dollars to over $1,000 for a solid gaming computer, students and schools in low-income communities have an inherent disadvantage compared to other esports teams. In some schools, the only students able to compete are those whose parents can afford to buy them what they need.

Coaches at Harrison High said they were only able to get the team off the ground by giving players their own gear.

“It was an uphill battle trying to justify, ‘Hey, why do we need gaming PCs? Can’t they use their little Chromebooks?’ It’s like, no, the tech has to be those specs specific,” Hart said. “The harsh reality is that if we hadn’t provided those things from our own homes, we wouldn’t be able to participate in some of those games.”

There are limited solutions outside of asking school districts to fund esports. PlayVersus, the platform CHSAA uses to organize esports, has consoles available for schools with economic need, but inventory is tight.

Another issue that coaches and teams struggle with is fostering an environment where girls are welcome. Marquez, the only female member of Harrison’s League of Legends team, said that while she feels supported on the team, she thinks girls still feel a stigma about playing video games.

Harrison High School esports Tom McCartney takes notes as his team practices Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

“I grew up in this house where my brothers were allowed to play video games and I wasn’t because I’m female,” Marquez said.

Some team rosters are made up entirely of boys. Bear Creek High School esports coach Jessica Salazar said part of the struggle is to help teens navigate the perilous world of hormones.

“Last year we had [a girl] on the Rocket League team and there was drama with all the boys who loved him,” Salazar said. “And so she didn’t come back.”

There are other hurdles that state officials, coaches and students will have to contend with as the sport grows. But those aren’t insurmountable — Colorado is all about esports, so CHSAA officials hope they’re just growing pains.

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