MARTINSBURG — Since video games started finding their way into households and started taking up hours of youths’ lives, it’s been an eternal battle between parents and gamers — the parents wanting their children to do something more traditionally productive, while the gamers wanting to spend their free time in their games.
While the battle has continued and gotten stronger over the last few decades — video games becoming more popular and more immersive in time — the field has taken on a life of its own and may have found a solution to the struggle. ESports has become a billion-dollar industry that brings together aspects of the traditional athletics world with that of video games, and local students have started to see the benefits eSports offers.
Currently, Spring Mills is the only high school locally with an eSports club, while Martinsburg senior Logan Kramer recently became one of the first local students to sign his letter of intent to play for an eSports team at the collegiate level when he committed to West Virginia Wesleyan. Between Kramer and the roughly 20 club members at Spring Mills, eSports is starting to take the area by storm as other high schools will likely have their own club sooner rather than later.
“I think sometimes it takes somebody around here starting it for the first time to show that, but I think, especially after this, it will help gain interest. We have a variety of clubs here, but sometimes with clubs it’s about finding someone to be the advisor of that club,” Martinsburg High School guidance counselor Katie Myers said. “If we have someone in the building that’s willing to host it, I think that would be something we’ll probably look forward to doing.”
Forming an eSports club isn’t easy, something the Cardinals have figured out. However, the group that is delving into this new world at Spring Mills found great fulfillment as the squad has really started to dive into what it means to be an eSports team.
“Mainly what eSports is all about — or at least what I’m noticing on the college level, high school level — is ones that you play as a team against others. So anything that fits that mold is typically what they consider eSports. However, there are a lot of one-player-versus-one-player games out there, but anything where one team in some form or fashion can be formed to play some other team, whether it’s on a college level with colleges playing colleges, high school level playing other high schools, those are your eSports,” Spring Mills eSports general manager Monty Skeen said. “When you think of the fact that the sport itself is playing the game and being so good that the fine motor skills needed to play well and then when you throw in the added bonus of playing against others with others, then you’re talking about building your communication skills, building strategy and planning, things like that. There’s a lot of games that kind of fit under that umbrella.”
The whole concept of bringing eSports to local students was sparked by an article in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch that Skeen read, which discussed a program looking to bring eSports to the Mountain State. From there, the adventure took on a life of its own as Skeen, Michael Covell and Corey Mease took on the role of faculty advisors.
“The cool thing about Spring Mills High is that it’s so new that we have this blank canvas we can build off of. There’s so much room to grow, so I’m like, ‘How cool would that be?’ There’s only so many clubs, and you consider this is a school of like 14,000 kids. There’s only like 20-something clubs. Not everybody is into what’s already available — chess, skiing, whatever. Nothing wrong with those, just maybe it’s not someone’s club. My goal since I’ve been here is to get some things in place for people to be interested. I just knew,” Skeen said. “Too many people talk about Fortnite and everything else for there not to be eSports, so when I saw this is something on the collegiate level, my mind immediately went to the thought that this is scholarship money, this is opportunities, this could be motivation to actually go to college. Maybe somebody on the cusp who is deciding, if they realize, ‘Oh wait, I could go to, say, my alma mater Concord University and play eSports down there.’ This is a job. You can actually get a job as a coach, as a software designer, a SHOUTcaster, or all these other support roles in the realm of eSports. I used to follow a podcast where they would talk about trades and acquisitions for big international eSports teams, what their salary caps and everything else were. When I saw that on Twitter, I knew we had to get this started.
“It was weird because nobody listens to morning announcements, but when we first formed this club, that announcement cut through all the noise,” Skeen added. “People in the gyms were hearing it over the bouncing balls. People in every class were hearing it. People were just freaking out. It was just amazing. You slip the word ‘Fortnite’ into an announcement and people are like, ‘Fortnite?’ They heard it, and they all came out. We had 50, 75 people show interest at the interest meeting.”
When it comes down to it, eSports has opened opportunity for local students who may not be interested in taking a route to college in traditional sports. And eSports provides an outlet to higher learning.
With Kramer attending Wesleyan that shed light on just one of several colleges nearby that offer eSports, including Shenandoah University and Concord University.
It’s likely that Kramer is just the first of a number of local students who will be joining eSports programs in college. Noah Crum, a senior at Spring Mills and member of the eSports club, has thought about taking this new venture to the collegiate level.
“I’ve taken a look at some of the scholarships you can get for playing in tournaments and playing eSports in general. I definitely looked into seeing if they have programs,” Crum said.
Although just 14 and not quite looking at colleges yet, teammate Matthew Sliger echoed Crum’s thoughts: “If you’re finding you’re having a problem deciding between two or a couple colleges, one of the things I would look for — I don’t know much about looking for colleges yet — is if there’s a decent eSports team or one at all. That would influence my decision.”
The concept of playing video games for college is still mind-boggling at times, but for Crum and Sliger, their parents have began understanding that eSports is more than “just playing video games.”
“Every other game besides NHL right now, my mom’s like, ‘You could be doing homework.’ But when she comes in and sees that I’m playing NHL and that every Friday, I stay after school and I talk about how it’s a real organization and she’s seen how the official site and stuff, she actually treats NHL like homework when she sees me doing it, like, ‘Oh, it’s school work,'” Crum said, noting that he was gearing up for an NHL ’20 tournament on behalf of the club.
“I usually tend to stay to the stuff that we’ve been playing, the stuff that I usually do. My parents, I’ve talked to them about it after the club meetings and in general. Before I even joined it, they were asking, ‘Is this just going to be you playing video games at home?’ After I explained to them, they kind of treat it like homework, like Noah said,” Sliger added.
Under the North American Scholastic eSports Federation, Spring Mills’ club finds a balance of enjoying video games — right now focusing on League of Legends, NHL 20, Smash Bros. and a few others, including Fortnite soon — and STEM education. The NASEF works to promote eSports in a way that directly connects with various curriculum in the school system.
“NASEF is real big on these what they call Beyond the Game Challenges, where they have developed these challenges — once we get established I’m going to have the guys doing this too — it’s these different things that would go into running an eSports team such as posting clips, doing some sort of commercial, making fliers, coming up with officials documents,” Skeen said. “They have it tied directly into curriculum standards. Whenever you’re designing a logo, that ties right into an art or graphic design standard. Whenever you’re shooting a promo video, that goes into communications standards. Maybe developing a mod, that goes into programming. They have a lot of ideas for how this relates directly to STEM, and that’s where I would like to take it.”
Crum is a prime example of someone taking advantage of all the aspects of eSports, having recently done well in a Minecraft tournament, creating Harpers Ferry in the game.
“It was a competition that was held by the Board of Education to build an educational place in Minecraft. I’ve been playing Minecraft since 2011, so I was well-versed in how everything worked in there. It was something I learned to build in my computer class, so I decided to take it on,” he explained. “I spent five, four hours a day for a couple weeks just constantly building, and then I had to take a video and that took a couple hours, just recorded the place and getting it all on video.”
Still because the realm is so new, there’s still the dichotomy of figuring out that eSports is more than video games while students are still playing video games.
For Myers, who’s not just a guidance counselor but the girls soccer coach for the Bulldogs, she’s put an effort in to learn more about the world because her son may one day be interested in a future with eSports.
“I can be honest that when I first heard about eSports, I was like, ‘What? You’re going to play a video game?’ But you see how much it takes. Not for nothing; kid’s nowadays, it’s all about finding their niche. I was an athlete. I was involved in sports, and that was my niche,” Myers said. “That’s what made me be successful, and ultimately if what we’re looking for is ways to motivate kids and ways for them to be successful, then I think it’s tremendous that they have that opportunity. I have a 9-year-old son. I’ve tried him in basketball. I’ve tried him in soccer. I’d love for him to grab a hold of one of those sports, but he enjoy video games, and he’s really good at it. It’s hard not to let your child do something they’re really good at because they feel better about themselves. They build confidence. As a coach of an athletics team, it was hard to wrap my brain around that, but also having the dual role as a school counselor, I see the benefits so much more.”
The concept of considering video games a sport is still a foreign one to many, though, but the members of Spring Mills’ club are quickly finding ways to get rid of the stigma. Skeen said he’s had a number of football players interested in joining, and both Crum and Sliger hadn’t been deeply involved in the world until the Cardinals developed their club.
“I hadn’t been involved in eSports specifically, but I’d been doing decent in competitive video games for a little bit. This just kind of opened it up,” Sliger said. “I think my first competitive game was the Smash Bros. series, and I’ve been doing that for a while. It just showed me how fun to play video games cooperative with other people trying to do something or just going head-to-head.”
Crum, an actor by trade, added: “I’d been involved in a couple tournaments, Madden tournaments, but nothing big. When you play online with a bunch of people, the next level up, once you do that for 20,000 hours or some insane amount of time, is to take it to tournaments and play people who would have the same amount of time as you, not just random people.”
Even Kramer, someone who is attending college with an eSports scholarship, has never really been involved with a team or considered himself playing eSports before.
“Not as much as many others probably have, but I have been dabbling in it a little bit. eSports is a wide variety of different games, and it’s all basically competitive playing. If you’re under the title of an eSports player, you’re playing competitively for a team,” he said.
Myers has recognized that video games have long changed since their introduction into society, and eSports is providing a way for students who might not be traditionally athletic to be involved with sports.
“No one’s going to be as good as the video game is anyway. Even the professional athletes aren’t going to be as good the video game. It does give kids a way to escape, too, and be something sometimes they’re not. I think it’s healthy to have a good dose of everything,” she said. “Moderation is always good. You don’t want to spend hours and hours on something, but at the same time, you do have to put in time to get better at it. I think it’s great that Logan, himself, has this opportunity. I think it creates a lot of hope for kids like my son and other video gamers. Just hearing him talk about things, he’s in a world that I know very little about. I think about video games, I would go into an arcade and eventually I got a Nintendo system. When he talks about this PC game and that, it’s amazing. He talks about bandwidth and things like that.”
In fact, the eSports club at Spring Mills is ran like any other athletics team, right down to the requirements to be allowed to join.
“We have the same requirements that other sports have. You’ve got to have a 2.0 (grade-point average) to play. I’ve had to turn some people away, like, ‘I would love to have you on here, but you’ve got to fix your grades.’ When they realize this could be a motivator to get good grades to be on the team and to play professionally and to represent your school, a lot of parents do tend to come around,” Skeen said.
The NASEF has been helpful in numerous ways, the organization focusing on getting as many interested participants eSports opportunities as possible, but the club still needs to overcome the obstacle of getting the required equipment like any other sport.
“The cool thing with that is to make sure that we can play, the NASEF sent us two copies — XBOX copies — of NHL 20 along with two three-month cards for XBOX Gold. Their big thing is that anybody who wants to participate doesn’t have to come out of pocket for it since it is educational, it is STEM related. They provide the materials,” Skeen said. “At the pep rally, these guys came up with the idea to pie us in the face. They’ve been selling raffle tickets for a chance to hit a teacher in the face with a pie. That should be fun, give them a chance to raise money. That’s been the first thing we’ve been having to deal with: eSports takes equipment. We need computers to play on. The way our parents organization wants us to play is the team, for the big tournaments like League of Legends or Overwatch, they play from the school. They would also be willing to provide us a coach that we would dial in via some sort of web chat or something, and they would coach on how to play the game better. They would provide all these resources, all they ask is that we play from the school. Right now, we can’t do that. We just don’t have the equipment. We don’t have the technology setup that is required.”
Spring Mills hosted a Mario Kart tournament to fund-raise, and the Cardinals will be holding another fundraiser on March 4 at Chipotle. The team will mostly use PC games, though XBOX and other systems are certainly a possibility. The Mario Kart tournament recently held by the club utilized Nintendo Switches.
The fundraising ideas were the con conceptions of the club members, something Skeen and his fellow GMs have focused on: promoting the club be student run.
“The officers run the meeting. I don’t want this to be something where the teacher shows up and tells the kids what to do. I want this to be the teachers show up to unlock the door, stand to the side, let them run the meeting and keep them on the right track if they start going off the rail,” he said. “I would love to get this club to the place where it could still conduct business in the event that I’m not here or the three GMs aren’t here, that there’s an established thing so that you come in at the beginning of the year and you’re like, ‘ESports club, let’s get it going.'”
All the eSports players hope that there’s definitely a big future in the area for the field, more schools getting teams along the way and more students showing interest. They hope to inspire other gamers to use it as a possible route to college and a way to compete against others.
“I think that maybe for this area, it could give a younger generation hope that, ‘Yeah, even if you aren’t athletically inclined, you could be mentally and be a good gamer even if you can’t run very fast,'” Kramer said. “It’s really exciting. I hope that what I’m doing now inspires someone maybe later down the road to maybe do the same thing.”