By Luke O’Roark of the Post Register   Originally published January 30, 2019
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Classes are over at Thunder Ridge High School. Janitors are roaming the halls, cleaning the newly minted school on a Tuesday evening.

Tucked in a back hall, Eddie Walsh’s ceramics classroom is abuzz with 14 students playing “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate”, the popular Nintendo title, on a small projector. From outside the door frame, the members of the Thunder Ridge esports club can be heard making jokes about memes and internet culture during their practice.

Thunder Ridge is the only area school with an esports club, joining a national movement and ushering in a different type of competition that’s rapidly growing in popularity.

How popular is it?

In October, Nike signed Chinese League of Legends player Jian “Uzi” Zihao to an endorsement deal.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Monday that a growing number of colleges are starting esports “programs and building million-dollar facilities where gamers take on their counterparts on other campuses.” Some of those gamers are on full-ride scholarships.

And Axios reported Tuesday that the billion-dollar esports industry is eyeing high schools and colleges as a talent pipeline for an industry whose viewership is expected “to reach 300 million by 2022, putting it on par with the NFL.”

Thunder Ridge’s grassroots club is officially a member of the High School Esports League. Walsh, the club’s adviser, said it was jump-started for kids who may not have an interest in traditional sports, music or other fine arts.

“When I was thinking about what esports or video games could do for a school, it started out as an opportunity for kids to take something they really enjoy and apply it to a competitive situation where they can potentially get scholarships and potentially go on to college,” said Walsh, as two players playing Wario and Pichu duke it out on the classroom’s whiteboard.

The Tuesday “Super Smash Bros.” practice saw kids from all grade levels and shapes and sizes make a half-circle at the far end of Walsh’s room. They hope to one day play video games competitively in college, or as a career.

It isn’t a crazy idea: Esports is the one of the world’s fastest-growing phenomena.

Along with Thunder Ridge, Nampa Christian, Skyview, Kuna, Glenns Ferry, Lakeland, Lakeside and Sandpoint high schools reportedly have esports programs, according to the High School Esports League’s website.

Boise State University has a team. There are more than 120 colleges with collegiate programs across the United States, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Regionally there also are college programs at the University of Providence (formerly known as University of Great Falls) in Montana, DigiPen Institute of Technology (Redmond, Washington) and Centralia College (Washington). There also are five collegiate teams in Oregon.

The University of California, Irvine made national headlines during the fall of 2017 when it offered scholarships for players of “Overwatch,” a team-based first-person shooter game. “Overwatch” even has a professional league, which signed a $90 million dollar deal with the livestream video platform Twitch, to show events online worldwide.

Ryan McNamee, Boise State’s ESports’ director of operations, said students from multiple backgrounds have a hands-on role with the team — not just those who play the games competitively. He said the university’s athletic department has been open to the idea of competitive gaming, as students involved in electrical engineering, journalism, event coordination and live broadcasting are members of the team.

At Thunder Ridge, the club is still organizing and getting the proper resources (computers, gaming microphones and controllers) to compete yearly, but the hope is to one day create an avenue for students passionate about competitive gaming to get into higher education.

Club president Daxton “Dax” Bragg said about 20 players have joined the club since its inception last fall and have worked concession stands to cover its expenses.

There is no fee to join the group.

“The community is great and whenever we’re doing this, we’re just trying to practice and get better,” Bragg said.

Bragg said Hyrum Cannon and Jacob Affleck helped him create the club, as the idea couldn’t gain traction at his former high school, Hillcrest.

“We’re going to participate in tournaments more often than not, and once we do, we can continue to get better,” he added.

By spring, the hope is to get into more competitions to help members become acclimated to the sport and potentially get sponsorship.

Some gamers, such as David Hemming, have serious ambitions to practice, improve and find a future in an activity that was once looked at as a hobby.

Hemming was previously a member of a video game club in Copper Hills, Utah, and said the club just wants organization and to create an environment to help overlooked students play video games competitively.

“If we really want to, we can play online. … I wouldn’t say there really is an ‘end goal’ here; it’s more of a ball we got rolling,” Hemming said. “As long as we get people who are interested in playing video games competitively and give them the opportunity to do exactly that, then that’s fantastic.”

Esports are more brain than brawn but they share a core concept with traditional team sports: “work and coordinate as a team to achieve a collective goal.”

Esport has a wide selection of competitive games (“Overwatch,” “Madden,” “Call of Duty,” and many more), and like NASCAR or hockey, competition is the core idea.

For example, in “Overwatch,” teams of six coordinate and communicate with a variety of map strategies, characters and objectives within a certain time limit to beat another team of six. Based on how well the team achieves those objectives, it scores more points. The team with the highest point total wins the round. Teams play multiple rounds and matches per competition. There are rankings and individual statistics for each player and team.

The professional Overwatch League Grand Finals in July averaged 860,000 viewers per minute, according to the L.A. Biz Journal.

Socially, McNamee and Walsh said esports can create an environment for those who may suffer from social anxiety or awkwardness.

“It’s social in a different kind of way,” McNamee said. “Ten to 15 years ago (gaming) was known as nonsocial. Now it’s just social in a different way. I have good friends from playing video games over the years.”

Bragg echoed a similar sentiment.

“Us being the way we are — ‘like, oh, we’re not very athletic,’ some of us don’t participate in sports — we don’t really have anything we can enjoy,” Bragg said standing next to Hemming, drowned out by button mashes and background cheering. “But when we do this, it requires skill. It’s like an art.”