Esports on the rise among southeast Iowa schools

Union file photo

Members of Fairfield High School’s eSports club practice Tuesday, Dec. 3. Members pictured are, from left, front row: Bradley Clemons, Spencer Hilger, Dustin Phelps, Grant Ward, Jacob Copeland and Logan DeJaeghere; back row: Ethan Jasper, Zach Holcomb, advisor Tyler Weseman, and Nicole Sutherland.
Union file photo Members of Fairfield High School’s eSports club practice Tuesday, Dec. 3. Members pictured are, from left, front row: Bradley Clemons, Spencer Hilger, Dustin Phelps, Grant Ward, Jacob Copeland and Logan DeJaeghere; back row: Ethan Jasper, Zach Holcomb, advisor Tyler Weseman, and Nicole Sutherland.

Beau Stutzman has big dreams for his future in the communications field and as the Mid-Prairie High School senior looks forward to graduation, he is already polishing his skills by participating in esports.

Already in the National Guard, Stutzman said he wants to become a radio communication specialist. By playing esports at school and working in teams, he feels he is already learning how to be a good leader, communicator and most importantly how to accomplish things as a team.

Esports are on the rise among high school students and some colleges are now offering scholarships as well. According to the Iowa High school Esports Association (IAHSEA), playing esports is not about playing video games but about promoting positive communication skills.

“The Mission statement of the IAHSEA is: To support safe and competitive environments for Iowa high school students while promoting team building, communication and critical thinking through esports programs. These programs will provide an opportunity for more students to feel connected to school as well as provide future opportunities in the fields of technology and esports,” according to the website.

Esports are video games students play competitively against one another. Through the IAHSEA, they can play different schools across the state in a variety of leagues and games.

Tristan Novy, a senior at Mid-Prairie, was one of the first students to get the club running at his school. The school is a member of the IAHSEA and has a team working together to prepare for their first match today against a team in Holstein.

Because everything is done electronically, there are no travel expenses. However, because the club does not have a dedicated space to play, team members meet at each others homes. Club sponsor Kurtis Broeg said he will be with the students during this match.

“It is supervised. I have to be there to make sure they’re all who they say they are. Since we don’t have enough computers at the school yet, we can’t meet here yet,” he explained.

In the WACO school district, Drew Ayrit is the Esports sponsor and said the school explored the idea of adding the program for about two years before moving forward with it. It started with a small group meeting just on Friday’s when there is no school and as interest grew, the district applied for a Riverboat Foundation grant which allowed it to turn the computer lab into an esports lab.

“Administration was on board and that really launched us to get the facility set up,” he said.

Interest in the program was measured from exploratory classes where students were asked which activities they would like to participate in, he said. Video games came up often, prompting the district to consider ways it could appease students and still provide a learning experience.

“We were trying to decide how we could pursue that and still be productive and make sure the students were still gaining skills that they would need to be successful in life so that’s where we started looking at esports to bring in a team element where they would have to communicate and build strategy together and work on some of those types of employability skills,” he said.

In the Fairfield Community School District, things came up a little differently. Director of Technology and esports adviser John Grunwald said he learned about it from other tech coordinators and decided to ask students if they would be interested.

The students he approached had never heard of esports but once Grunwald explained it to them, they were on board he said. After sending out a school wide survey, the district found that about 50 percent of students had an interest in esports which prompted tech directors to approach administration for approval.

The group operates as a club, he said, with 30 active members but the number can be fluid, he said. Because students involved in esports might be involved in other activities such as basketball or choir, they may not make it to all esports practices.

Grunwald says the club was specifically set up that way to allow students to be able to do be involved in everything they want without having to choose one over the other.

Currently WACO also operates its esports group as a club and is focusing on training students in specific games in order to compete next year. Four high school students meet before school to train and 10 junior high and high school students meet after school to practice skills and train on different games.

Although esports differ greatly from traditional sports, Ayrit said they have similarities specifically in the area of team work.

“Just like a basketball team or a football team, communication plays the largest role in a lot of these games,” he said.

Ayrit said the club chatted with an esports recruiter from Morningside College in Sioux City who said the positive communication and team work are what he looks for the most when scouting.

“He said that by far what he’s looking for in students is communication skills, being able to work as a team and take on different roles are what he looks at much more closely than a students actual ability and skill within a game,” he said.

Novy agreed, saying although it may appear to be high school students gaming together, there is much more going on beneath the surface.

“We consider ourselves athletes because although we don’t have to do anything physical, we do have to train to play correctly and develop teamwork and communication skills. (We need) everything a normal team would have,” he said.

Mid-Prairie students are learning the tech side of things too, he said. To play the games Novy said the club had to build the computers themselves from donated parts.

Graphic design and coding can be done on those computers as well, he said. Although the computers were built by esports, they can be used by other members of the school in different capacities.

For competition, Ayrit said it is all done online and each school is expected to be able to connect remotely. In the past, the WACO team has traveled but generally meet at the school and game from their esports lab.

Fairfield students do not have a devoted spaces for their gaming and instead use the Project Lead the Way room for games that need to be played on computers, such as League of Legends, and the library for games that can be played via a television or Nintendo Switch, such as Smash Brothers.

However, that does not stop inhibit them from being competitive within competition. Grunwald said the students can still connect remotely and have even traveled some.

Recently students played a team from Oklahoma without even leaving their school building. Having no travel expenses for a sport is a plus, he said, but Grunwald said the biggest take away he sees from esports is the team building it promotes.

“There are a lot of leadership skills involved in this,” he said. Depending on the game, students have to work in teams and communicate with each other to succeed. “If you can’t clearly communicate among your team, you’re just going to be five individuals,” he said.

Broeg agreed, saying esports is a way for students of all backgrounds to come together as a team.

“What’s kind of amazing is most of these students serve on teams in different areas such as music or other sports ... This is an opportunity for them to work with people they would not normally work with,” he said.

The leadership skills that can be developed are what Grunwald says were the biggest reason he wanted to bring esports to the district. The students are held to the same academic standard as students in traditional sports or fine arts.

Students still interact with one another and learn to work with people they would not normally work with while still being treated as if this were not just about playing video games, but about find tuning communication and leadership skills.

“By creating this esports club, it provides a place at school for these kids to come together,” he said. “It knocks down those classroom walls but makes the world so much smaller.”