The Leading Edge of Athletics: eSports

It isn’t played on a field, in a pool, or on a court. Players don’t tackle or dribble, and there are no raucous crowds in the bleachers cheering them on. In fact, there aren’t even bleachers. Participants are seated, but they aren’t riding bikes—unless, that is, PlayVS decides to add a particularly involved racing game to the eSports menu this spring.

Woodward Academy has broken into the eSports world, with the first teams debuting in the spring of 2019. Just as with any other sport, the players are highly skilled, hard-working, and well-coached, and just as with most other teams at Woodward, the virtual War Eagles are highly successful, with one of the Woodward teams placing third in the state in their debut campaign.

Coached by Daniel Wages, a Database Analyst in Woodward’s Information Technology department, the program had to do most everything on the fly in year one.

“It really wasn’t easy at first,” Wages said. “We had to get the athletic department behind it, and you can imagine how difficult it is to explain the value of starting an eSports team to more traditional athletic coaches, and it just stalled for a while. We had basically no budget for the team in the first year, so we had to throw things together. Luckily, since [Dan Morris] and I are in IT, we were able to upgrade some older computers, and the kids mostly have good laptops.”

This was Wages’ first year coaching, and he found that many of the same techniques used by coaches in other sports apply to eSports.

“The skills involved are similar to some other sports, in terms of reaction time, how quickly you can perform certain functions,” Wages said. “Actions-per-minute is a big thing in this sport. These kids are already extremely good at those things, so what I’ve been trying to focus on is working as a team. The way you get higher ranked individually [in eSports] can sometimes be at odds with the way your team wins, and it’s just a matter of getting everyone to think team-first.”

Close to 200 colleges and universities across the country now offer scholarships for eSports, which has helped to make it one of the fastest growing competition sports nationwide at the high school level. PlayVS is the leading organizer of high school eSports, providing the framework for the Georgia High School Association’s competition. Woodward was one of 81 schools across the state competing in the first year of GHSA sanctioned play. 

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The fundamentals of competition are fairly simple. PlayVS offers three games in which teams can compete: League of Legends, which is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, Rocket League, which is described as soccer with rocket-powered cars, and Smite, another MOBA. In the inaugural year, Woodward’s teams chose to focus on League of Legends, essentially a fantasy battle game where teams of five compete to destroy each other’s base. To excel in the game, players have to demonstrate team work and planning.

“I’ve been playing League of Legends since I was 8, and I really wanted to play for the school, I considered that an honor to play against other schools and represent Woodward,” Jay Mae, class of 2020, said. “I think it was a learning experience for us in year one. You really have to communicate well to win, and I think we got better over time, but the main reason we didn’t win state was just not having perfect communication. The game is all about team work, reacting quickly, and like any other sport, you have to practice constantly to perfect those things.”

Mae was one of the top players for Woodward this year, and is hoping to continue to compete at the college level, though he notes that he still would have a lot of work to do to make an eSports team at the college level, which typically only draw from the top 1% of players. He said the experience has been extremely beneficial for him, and has given him tools he can apply to other aspects of life.

“So much of what I’ve learned translates,” Mae said. “Like, in AP Biology, when you’re doing a lab report, you have to communicate with the people in your group, and also know who’s good at what, to make sure you’re putting together a cohesive whole. It’s been a great way also to meet new people and make new friends. Not everyone is built to be a top athlete, but this can be a good way for those types of kids to get the same kind of team experience.”

There are several studies linking video games and improvements in thinking, which can make it a valuable pursuit—in moderation—for anyone. There are links between video games generally with improved performance in STEM, and eSports builds upon that by also instilling real senses of sportsmanship, teamwork, and self-confidence in participants. On top of that, it’s a growing sport, with more and more colleges offering athletic scholarships over time.

Wages would ideally like to see even more kids participating in coming years—and he has a plan for getting students more involved and interested.

“Right now, there’s no gaming club for students at Woodward,” Wages said. “I want to make a club, and it would be good to have a dedicated space for kids who want to play games in an organized way, which could also feed into the team. We’re doing eSports bigger and better than other independent schools, and we have the opportunity to stay at the forefront here.”

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