By Tim Rockey, journalist for the Frontiersman  Originally Posted November 9, 2018
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WASILLA — The newest wave of high school athletes competing for athletic supremacy are hard at work, honing their skills and practicing their craft. They are not located in a weight room, shooting hoops in an empty gym, or hitting balls off a tee in a batting cage. They are sitting in front of computers battling competitors from around the globe for gaming glory. And not only do these students have bragging rights on the line, but an opportunity to build a future and possibly pay for their education with scholarships for esports gaming.

The Mat-Su Borough School District began esports with the fall semester, and another season will begin in the spring. Teams from American Charter School, Burchell, Colony High, Mat-Su Central, and Susitna Valley, Wasilla High and Valley Pathways compete in either “Rocket League”, “Overwatch”, or “League of Legends”.

At Burchell, an alternative high school with more than 200 students, the most popular club activity is esports. Thirty students started with the program in August, and about 25 boys and girls remain. Athletes must maintain minimum grade point average and attend classes, similar to their counterparts at other schools in sports like basketball and football. For the first time, Burchell will have a sports team that competes with other squads from around the state, jerseys and all.

“All of these students now have an extra class study period where they’re taking on either more math skills or something of those academic needs to help them with their GPA and help them with their ultimate goal of graduation and becoming an adult. So absolutely, we’ve had a couple students here that their attendance is definitely up because of the gaming and they’re definitely more active,” said Earl Almdale II, esports coach at Burchell.

While gaming, the students are not just competing for victory online, but learning valuable skills along the way.

“There also is some stuff to learn here, team formation, you know, things like that. Social skills, perseverance, keep trying, you’ll get better,” Tyler Sorenson, a sophomore at Burchell, said.

Sorenson plays “Overwatch”, a ‘hero shooter,’ or first-person shooter organized in two teams of six where players attempt to take and defend various points on the map. Gamers practice three days a week for two hours, with tournament play against schools from across the state as part of the brand new esports program aimed at getting kids involved.

“Normally we fight each other, but we’re just going against random people around the world now. A 3v3 match on our team would be like to hone our skills, but this is more for like team coordination,” Tehvyn Rice, a sophomore at Burchell said while playing “Overwatch”.

Almdale has had to learn on the fly, coaching students on how to work together as a team. Almdale has also been on the forefront of the effort to start the esports program started as an IT Network Supervisor for MSBSD.

“I spend most of my time as an IT professional making sure that kids can’t do these things from school, and then they came to me and said ‘Earl, we need to make this happen. How do we do it?’” Almdale said.

Almdale is an old school gamer, and is happy to help foster the love of learning in this new frontier. Almdale started on the Atari and Nintendo Entertainment System before building his own gaming PC in 1995.

“I was into gaming, LAN parties, I was playing ‘Half-life’, ‘Counterstrike’, all of that stuff. I grew up on ‘Doom’ and ‘Wolfenstein’, those were my things. So it’s pretty cool to be able to take something that was kind of like a club, per se, when I was in high school and see it actually applied as a sport,” Almdale said.

Where a traditional sports coach may have a whistle or stopwatch around their neck, Almdale is armed with a gaming keyboard and mouse. Many of the students bring in their own hardware for practice. Almdale, who joined the US Marine Corps after graduating from Colony High, is teaching many of the same leadership and teamwork skills that he learned in the military.

“The biggest thing for coaching video games is teaching that teamwork and communication. That’s the biggest part of it, is developing a cohesive unit out of a group of adolescents that don’t really have those building blocks yet. So we’re developing those skills and those tools now, so getting them to do that, that’s the biggest part for me is encouraging communication and teamwork,” Almdale said.

Students involved in esports have an extra academic period for applying math skills and studying. Just like with a traditional sports, athletes have to work hard in class to be able to participate in esports.

“It’s kind of nice, because in order to stay on the team you’ve got to work a little bit harder, but I don’t mind because it kind of pushes me to. It kind of makes me focus on track. Because in order for me to be on the team, I can’t really let them down, because if I let them down then there won’t be a team,” said Kenneth Morawitz, a junior at Burchell. Morawitz is a “League of Legends” gamer. League is a multiplayer online battle arena game in which players gain strength throughout the course of the game and try to destroy the base of another team or computer characters.

Burchell has varsity teams for “Rocket League” and “Overwatch”, but are still working on fielding a team for League. Esports has been so popular that Almdale expects to have varsity and junior varsity teams for all three games in the spring season. Almdale said that there are about 15 other students not currently on the team that are interested in joining. Esports is one of the few platforms where boys and girls compete as equals. Of the 30 students that originally joined, none of the girls have quit.

Natasha Tolbert is a junior at Burchell, and joined the esports team so that she could the play video games at school she does not have access to at home. She listens to music while training in “Rocket League,” a game she has very little experience with. She has mostly spent time playing first-person shooters, but joined the esports team to make more friends.

“For me it’s social, like, I’m very antisocial so it kind of helps me be a little more social,” Tolbert said.

James Pendergrass is a freshman at Burchell, and captains the “Rocket League” team.

“’Rocket League’ really got me into it, because it was just an addictive game, and I liked the competitive aspect of it,” Pendergrass said.

“Rocket League” can best be described as soccer played with RC cars. Gamers have the option of choosing a variety of different cars with custom items and colors and try to score more goals than the other team during a five-minute match. Players compete in teams of three for tournaments, but alternative game modes can be one-on-one, doubles,‘chaos’ which puts eight competitors on the same playing field, and ‘snow day,’ which uses a puck instead of a ball. Pockets of boost are stationed throughout the arena, and players can use the boost to rapidly increase their speed and fly through the air for strikes, which requires amazing accuracy and attention to detail. Children often enjoy the game because of the explosions that happen when a goal is scored, or when one player demolishes the car of another player at a high rate of speed. Quick chat options are available for communication with teammates or opponents, be they foul or friendly. Pendergrass’ most used quick chat option is ‘calculated,’ usually used sarcastically as a reaction to unexpected outcomes. While just a freshman, Pendergrass has been playing “Rocket League” since 2016, and captains the team as the most experienced player.

“I’m an aggressive offensive control freak,” Pendergrass says.

Pendergrass has also been charged with coaching his teammates. Where traditional sports coaches are expected to have more game experience than the players, in esports that is simply not the case.

“Nathan, he’s a pretty good friend of mine. I’ve been helping him out with rotation and positioning. He’s a demolition junkie though, he knows how to demo people even if he is lagging,” Pendergrass said.

A student from Anchorage Christian School made headlines last year when he was awarded a scholarship to attend Southwest Baptist University to play League. “ESPN The Magazine” featured an esports athlete on the cover earlier this year, and esports is the fastest growing sport in the world both in terms of participation and compensation. Massive tournaments pack stadiums around the world where not only do gamers game, but gamers watch other gamers. A budding industry of esports coverage has developed out of necessity, featuring traditional color commentators for matches just as many grew up on the dulcet tones of Al Michaels and John Madden on Monday nights. Live streams of matches between Alaskan esports teams can be found online, broadcast and commentated on by national broadcasters. MTA has been a big sponsor, donating jerseys and offering an esports scholarship at the end of the fall season. Dell donated new PC’s to Burchell for esports purposes.

“The future I got from it was because I learned how to build the computers, and both of them will provide for a career in the future and that’s an amazing thing,” Almdale said.

Gamers at high schools across the nation are being given a place to compete on an interscholastic level, with a national championship to be held in Connecticut in December. Students at Burchell have the opportunity to learn and grow while punching keys, and maybe more importantly, represent their school in competition for the first time ever.

“This is the first time that Burchell has had a team that they can actually have a sport with, that’s pretty cool…There’s no manual for this at all,” Almdale said. “I want them to be able to take some of the stuff that they’re doing here and pay for their college degree and push them towards something they want to do with their life.”