The newest sanctioned sport by the Georgia High School Association isn’t played under the lights on a Friday night or in a packed gymnasium on a weekend.
At least not yet.
Although video games have been around for decades, the popularity and participation of Esports has boomed in recent years and, this past fall, the GHSA made its first foray in the world of video gaming through a partnership with PlayVS, an official high school Esports league that is beginning to grow its roots nationwide.
Georgia is one of eight states to make Esports an official school team sport, complete with a state championship, while five other states offered Esports this past fall as a club sport.
Heritage High School was among those to offer up Esports to its students and the Generals fielded two teams, both of which advanced to the 64-team field for the first GHSA Esports state playoffs after 12 regular-season league matches. The Red Generals were eliminated in a close loss in the Round of 32, while the Blue Generals also fell in a tough match after advancing to the Round of 16.
This current season - Season Zero - which will conclude at the end of January, will be immediately followed by Season One in February.
“This is just a trial season,” Heritage head coach Leslie Sawyer explained. “This season we’re only playing League of Legends, so I think they just wanted to start out with the one game and make sure everything was going to be working and not have any issues.”
League of Legends, which combines the speed and intensity of a real-time strategy game with role-playing game elements, is one of the most popular Esports games worldwide. Two teams of five compete head-to-head across multiple battlefields and game modes. Each player has a specific role and must support one another to succeed.
The 2016 League of Legends World Championship finals attracted 43 million viewers and that figure jumped to 60 million in 2017. According to a recent online report, League of Legends is the second-most popular game to watch online, behind Dota 2, and Esports viewers on YouTube and Twitch spent 17.9 million hours watching on those channels in the first quarter of 2018.
It was expected that viewership would reach 380 million in 2018, including 165 million dedicated Esports fans. The global Esports market generated $325 million (U.S.) of revenue in 2015, was expected to generate over $900 million this past year and is expected to top $1 billion by 2020, with tickets and merchandise contributing close to $100 million of that total.
Esports will be a medal sport in the 2022 Asian Games and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) has looked into the potential of adding Esports to its Games in the future, perhaps as early as 2024.
Not surprisingly, interest in starting up the Esports team at Heritage was high.
“We had about 60 kids sign up initially and that was before they paid their fees,” Sawyer said, noting the GHSA’s $64 participation fee. “The whole room was filled up that day, but the problem was that a lot of them wanted to play games that were first-person shooters, like Fortnite and things like that, and those games aren’t available right now.”
Season One will also include the games SMITE and Rocket League.
SMITE, a multiplayer online battle where players control mythological characters, involves five-player teams working together to level up their characters to siege the enemy’s base and defeat the opposition, while Rocket League is a sports-action game that combines soccer with driving. Three-person teams try and score as many goals as they can in a five-minute match.
“They will actually be adding two more games next school year, although we don’t know what they are just yet,” Sawyer continued. “But with this being a school thing, there are certain rules about the amount of violence in the games. This is not like some regular Esports that you would watch online. They might be adding some sports games, so I’m thinking they may add Madden (the extremely popular NFL football video game) or things like that.”
Heritage played this season with two five-person teams, plus one alternate player who can substitute on either team to fill in any gaps. This season’s team members included Jeb Bennett, Nick Brogdon, Evan Deason, Logan Eady, Lance Hayes, Cody Inskeep, Zidane Lawyer, Tommy Nguyen, Justin Pak, Drew Patrick and Jake Steele. The Generals also have a Twitch website where they broadcast some of their matches.
“Only guys are playing right now, although we do have a lot of girls that are interested in playing next semester,” Sawyer added.
Sawyer said the start-up of Esports has been tremendously beneficial for the students.
“It’s a good experience for these boys to learn about being on a team,” she said. “These are kids who might not have already been involved in other types of sports. Some of the kids are actually in the band and do other things, but we do have team members who are not involved in anything other extracurricular activities. It’s really good to have everyone involved and participating. It kind of brings out kids you normally don’t get to do things like that.”
According to the GHSA, the last day for schools to register for the new season is Feb. 8 with matches beginning later in the month and continuing through April. Playoffs are set to begin in May. Each school is required to have an Esports coach who is onsite for matches.
Schools are able to build as many teams as they’d like and each student needs one computer or laptop and one set of peripherals (mouse, keyboard, headset). Students can use their own, or schools can provide the equipment for them. The participation fees can also be paid for by the school, parents or sponsors.
EDITOR'S NOTE: LaFayette High School also fielded a pair of Esports teams for Season Zero, both of which advanced to the Round of 64 in the state playoffs.