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While pandemic keeps sports grounded, Utah high school esports keep gaming

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Throughout a week that gave Northern Utah some ideal weather for high school spring sports, fields remained empty and silent, bathed in sunshine and clear skies that otherwise would’ve been a welcome sight for those accustomed to Utah’s erratic spring weather.

It’s one of many results of the global COVID-19 pandemic which has ground daily life to halt across the planet.

High school spring sports in Utah are suspended until at least May 1, in line with the state’s soft closure of schools.

The ding of a baseball bat and bang of a starting gun are silent, but the pandemic hasn’t stamped out electronic sports, known commonly as esports (sometimes stylized eSports or e-sports).

Esports has dramatically increased in popularity in the world the past few years, according to a report published by gaming company Green Man Gaming. It’s undergone a similar growth in the United States.

The 2019 GMG report estimated the global audience for esports had more than tripled since 2012 to 443 million people.

In particular, the PC game League of Legends — abbreviated “LoL” — has shot to the forefront of the world’s esports consciousness.

The 2019 World Championships, held in Paris last fall, were watched by 100 million total unique viewers. The tournament peaked at 44 million concurrent viewers and viewers watched more than 1 billion hours of content throughout the five-week competition, according to an analysis released by Riot Games, which operates League of Legends.

“Not every game obviously translates really well to it, but certain competitive video games, it turns out that people will want to watch them and watch people that are really good play,” said Derrek Bitner, Northridge High’s computer science teacher and esports coach.

Esports is catching on in Utah.

Between 30-45 high schools in the state, including a handful in Davis County, are currently participating in an esports league that’s still functional despite the state’s public health protocols.

Normally, esports teams would assemble on a regular basis in a classroom after school and practice or play matches just like any other sports team or club.

For now, practices are held on an online streaming platform and each player is logged in from their respective home.

They play matches each week and vie for the end-of-season championship as one of the last aspects of normal life continues despite the wide-ranging impacts of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

UTAH’S LEAGUE

Right now, Utah’s esports league comprises three games, with plans for a fourth in September.

One is called Rocket League, the other is League of Legends and another is Super Smash Brothers Ultimate.

The league is run by a company called ITeam USA, which describes itself as a “student career and technical education organization specializing in innovative technology, entertainment arts and multimedia.”

Utah State Senator Daniel Thatcher (R-West Valley City) helped found ITeam, which gets help from another company called PlayVS, to run Utah’s esports league.

So, what’s Rocket League?

“The most silly, ridiculous way to describe (Rocket League) is soccer with cars,” Bitner said.

Rocket League is soccer with the objective of scoring more goals than the opposing team, but the soccer players are replaced by rocket-propelled cars.

Of course, it’s much more than soccer. There are such moves as flip resets and aerial shots, and the game is very fast-paced, said Northridge senior Isaac Porter, who’s on the esports team.

“I know, like, if adults are watching this, they can’t because it’s just, the screen’s moving so fast. You just have to be able to react,” Porter said.

As of Wednesday, Northridge’s Rocket League team — named “Team Rigid” — was 6-0 with 962 points on the season. Team Rigid was 216 points ahead of the second-place “Emotional Bed Plants” team from Timpanogos High in Orem.

Clearfield High’s team, named “Falcons,” was 4-0 and 127 points behind Timpanogos.

As teams play, their ranking changes and the algorithm that sets matchups each week pits teams of similar ranking against each other instead of having the best teams face the worst teams often and so on — “so it gives them a chance to have a better experience,” Bitner said.

The simple explanation of League of Legends is that it’s a multiplayer, team-based game and the teams — five players each — try to destroy each other’s Nexus, which is akin to a central stronghold.

Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, on the Nintendo Switch, is the sixth iteration of a fighting game released by Nintendo originally in 1999 for the N64 gaming system. Players can fight as characters from virtually any Nintendo game franchise (Mario Brothers, Legend of Zelda, Pokémon, Metroid, Star Fox, Animal Crossing and so on).

The Utah league for Super Smash Brothers is suspended, Thatcher said, because competition is normally held in-person.

But for Rocket League and LoL, competition can easily be conducted at individual homes, hence why the leagues are still going.

A BRIEF HISTORY

People have played video games together for as long as they’ve existed, whether it was Super Tennis, released in 1991 on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, released for the Switch in 2018.

Esports at the Utah high school level unofficially started to some degree in the 2000s as informal gaming competitions between students from different schools.

“Now with ITeam running official sanctioned high school esports, there’s now a central organization that’s handling all of this. It’s happening on a much higher level than it has before,” Thatcher said.

Teams got word in mid February, barely two months ago, that there would be a league that was going to start in late February.

Along with putting teams together on the fly, school district internet security was another issue that had to be ironed out. But once those were dealt with, it was time for kickoff.

Thatcher said the COVID-19 pandemic has “absolutely” affected things. He estimates that, without COVID-19, he would’ve been surprised if less than 100 schools were signed up.

ITeam, according to Thatcher, is an organization that supports computer science and IT in schools with activities that one might find in an organization such as Future Business Leaders of American (FBLA). Schools were already familiar with ITeam once esports started gaining ground.

“Trying to launch esports through schools was like pulling teeth ... but having esports be a part of a program like ITeam, no school’s going to say no to ITeam,” he said.

Thatcher and Bitner claim that esports are more accessible to kids than some physical sports. Thatcher said that’s because many households have a computer or gaming system with a reliable internet connection.

However, there are plenty of households who have neither those things. Computers and gaming systems cost upwards of hundreds of dollars and internet can run to around $100 per month, costs that aren’t feasible for many families.

MISCONCEPTIONS AND STEREOTYPES

The United States Open tennis tournament is held every summer at Arthur Ashe Stadium, a 23,771-seat behemoth in Queens, New York.

Last July, the stadium hosted the Fortnite World Cup, an esports gaming tournament with a total purse of $30 million.

Detractors claimed the big prize would promote laziness and would encourage kids to sit at home and play video games, which leads into a wide, long-held misconceptions about video games, supporters say.

The stereotypical “gamer” is the one who sits in a dark room for hours on end and does nothing but play video games, only emerging from the cave to use the bathroom or make food.

“He put a lot of work into it, held a lot of practices, watched a lot of past streams to get better,” Porter said about Giersdorf.

Porter says another misconception is that video games don’t take a lot of work, that people can look at the $3 million grand prize and think they can get on a computer or buy a gaming console and do the same thing.

“A lot of people assume video games are easy to play so they don’t think it’s that complicated to play. But it’s really complicated,” Porter said.

League of Legends, for instance, is quite complex to the uninitiated observer.

A brief survey:

• Players choose, or are assigned to, characters with different skillsets each match, essentially meaning everyone starts on a neutral playing field.

• Players can earn gold (the game’s currency) by killing monsters or taking out the other team’s defensive structures, then can use that gold to purchase upgrades to bolster their team’s chances of winning.

• The characters that each player controls, called Champions, start off each match at a low level and players can earn experience points to level-up their Champions.

• Each team’s Nexus is protected by turrets and other defensive structures.

The object of Rocket League is to score more goals than the opponent.

Super Smash Brothers’ objective is to knock an opponent off the battle stage more times than an opponent can knock you off.

They sound simple until one plays a game that’s fast-moving, requires full attention and mental capacity, plus a competitive edge that hasn’t disappeared from Utah just because physical sports are on hiatus.

The competitive edge just happens to be in someone’s living room, bedroom, basement, spare bedroom or wherever else in the home there’s enough space and electrical outlets to plug in and play.

You can reach prep sports reporter Patrick Carr via email at pcarr@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter @patrickcarr_ and on Facebook at facebook.com/patrickcarr17/.

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