Esports explode in popularity
White River Junction Carter Nalette called his team together for a pregame huddle. As his seven teammates passed around an Aztec idol they call their good-luck charm, Nalette said that no matter what happens, they’re going to have fun. Make sure to get some good kills, too.
Welcome to Doug Anton’s classroom on a late Tuesday afternoon where the Hartford High esports team is gathered for their two League of Legend matches against Mason Senior High of Erie, Mich.
“I’ve been around family of a lot this week and sometimes my mom likes to bring (esports) up, and they’re like, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ They have no idea,” said Nalette, who is a two-sport athlete and the junior class president, too. “We’re doing it for seriousness, like, we’re trying to have fun but be serious with it. I think we’re a bunch of friends that have something to prove.”
The League of Legends video game is one of three esports — short for electronic sports — sanctioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations. In partnership with esports startup PlayVS, the NFHS welcomed the sport to its list of 21 activities at the beginning of the 2018-19 academic year.
Esports is a form of competitive sport using video games. What started off in the 1980s with PacMan and Donkey Kong has morphed into a worldwide pursuit with global tournaments and high stakes.
ESPN has reporters dedicated to covering transactions comparable to Major League Baseball, commentators provide play-by-play to a live audience and the top-ranked League of Legends player has won more than $3.1 million in 2019.
Yes, there are fantasy leagues, too.
The Hurricanes are in the midst of their first season and off to a 4-2 start. What many would consider a hobby has turned into an activity that includes daily practice sessions and weekly film review.
Anton, 30, believes that Hartford is one of the only teams in Vermont. The Canes play against teams from all across the country, mostly based on the East Coast. Playoffs are split into regions.
The regular season goes into December, with postseason play in January. There is also a second season that starts in February and extends through May.
“It’s definitely something new and different to do,” senior Andrew St. Martin said. “In the grand scheme of things, none of us are extremely good, but it’s cool to see how we fare against these other high schools.
“It’s weird to play teams that aren’t even in the area. I don’t even know where the team is until Carter tells us. It’s a weird concept to wrap your head around.”
The idea of esports at Hartford started two springs ago when a group of students convinced Anton to start a video game section of H-Term, which is a designated week in May to give students a break from the grind of schoolwork and AP tests.
Some students choose to hike the Appalachian Trail or build cornhole boards from scratch, but a group of Canes chose to play video games. After two H-Terms of Anton leading a video game section, a tight-knit group of students emerged who wanted to take the next steps.
So last spring, Nalette and his classmates moved forward with their idea. With Anton, their social studies teacher, serving as the team’s advisor, Nalette filled out grant paperwork through the Byrne Foundation so computers could be purchased.
The foundation started the team off with $2,500 and said if the Canes could raise $3,000, it would deliver another $2,500. They are currently still working to raise their $3,000.
Since then, Hartford has bought three computers specialized for gaming. Two players bring their own desktops in each week. Each team member had to purchase a $64 season pass through PlayVS, but it gives them entire access to the game in and out of school.
“We’re trying to take something that kids have done for fun for years and partly for competitive nature,” said Anton, who first got into video games as an undergraduate at Assumption College. “We’re not trying to take the fun out of it, but we’re trying to really emphasize the competitiveness. We’re here to win. And to these guys’ credit, they’ve done a good job.”
With the players positioned at their computers, Anton told them to start talking their way through strategy for when the game starts. League of Legends pits five players per team against each other; the main goal is to knock down the opponent’s base, the Nexus.
The game is in a fantasy world and players kill each other using a variety of weapons such as rifles, flamethrowers and crossbows. Each player chooses to play as a champion and can be killed throughout the match. The longer the game goes, the longer it takes a player to respawn from being killed. The other main objective is to gather gold, which can be done by killing neutral monsters that pop up on the map. More gold gives players the opportunity to level up.
On the map, there are three lanes: top, middle and bottom. The bottom row usually has two players in it, a strategy that has become the norm over time. All game play is done on one map that is split down the middle. Each side is symmetrical to the other.
Junior Biki Singh, who his teammates call the all-star of the squad, possibly has the toughest job as Hartford’s jungler. The jungler is responsible for objective control, as well as helping the rest of the team win their respective lanes by surprising an enemy champion in their lane with the intent to kill them.
“I’m able to go across the map easier, and I’m able to help lanes from a different angle. I do enjoy doing it,” Singh said.
While Hartford dominates Mason Senior to improve to 6-2 on the season, there are still more hurdles to overcome. For the remainder of this school year, the team will continue to be recognized as a club by the school. That means no funding for equipment or jerseys, and no compensation for Anton’s time.
However, for the eight-member team — Nalette, Singh, St. Martin, Eddie Jeon, Remy Lambert, Calvin McCrory, Ben Rushton and Finn Sunde — the joy of just having a team far outweighs the cons.
Making the playoffs would be the fitting way to end the inaugural season.
“We were thinking how we could be up on the (auditorium) stage for playoffs,” Nalette said. “There’s a pulldown screen, so we can have a stream with different viewpoints. People could come and watch; that’d be really neat. Maybe a little hard to pull off.”