MILLTOWN — Esports has been around Saint Mark’s High School for a bit. The club started at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, and this year it has signaled its intentions to grow with the hiring of an esports manager and an ambitious plan under sophomore president Ethan McIntire.
For McIntire, who lives near North East, Md., the approximately 30-minute trip to Saint Mark’s was inspired at least in part by esports.
“I found out Saint Mark’s had an esports program, and that is part of the reason why I wanted to come here. Esports was a new thing, and I wanted to get into it,” he said.
The Spartans compete in two leagues. PlayVS is based on the East Coast, and the High School Esports League, which has more of a national imprint, McIntire said. Saint Mark’s currently fields teams in Valorant, a competitive shooter team, and Smash Bros., a platform fighting game. About 40-50 students are involved, mostly boys but with a few girls participating as well. Next year, the club plans to expand to include a Rocket League squad.
To oversee the gaming, Saint Mark’s brought in Chris Ruffini, who previously taught elementary school. He has been at the school for just a few months, and he is excited to get be somewhere that has taken it this far.
“Saint Mark’s is one of the first ones to be taking it very seriously and taking it to the next level,” he said. “No one really has a large esports program. That’s just who we wanted to be.”
Ruffini said his wife saw the advertisement for the vacancy at the school, and he had to check to make sure it was legitimate. He couldn’t find any similar jobs anywhere in the area. He is excited to be around students for whom gaming is a key part of their lives.
“I’ve seen how video games have been very important,” he said. “It’s growing. Instead of asking, ‘Do you play video games?’, it’s more of, ‘What game do you play?’ Everybody plays something. It might not be a console, it might not be a PC, but everybody plays something.”
“These guys are in their prime basically right now,” Ruffini said of his high school players.
McIntire said he wouldn’t mind being considered “washed-up” at 25.
“If washed-up means living in the Hollywood Hills, then yes,” he said.
The money that can be made is impressive. According to an article in The Street from 2020, single-game cash earnings of up to $200,000 are possible. Team participants can earn upward of $3,000-5,000 monthly in certain markets, and top players can supplement that with bonuses. Some teams offer insurance and retirement plans.
Some gamers earn money through digital media, cashing in for each subscriber they get. Revenues from sponsorships, media rights and ticket sales are also on the rise, according to the article.
McIntire said the appeal of video games begins with something simple: they’re fun. There are games to match anyone’s interests, he continued. Many of the club members at Saint Mark’s are using gaming as a tool to help them get into college. He wouldn’t mind being one of them, and when he finds someone with an edge on him, that only acts as motivation.
“I’m real competitive, so if someone’s better than me, I’ll just get better than them. It’s something I’ll really work toward,” he said.
McIntire added that since he lives a ways from the school, gaming helps him socialize with his friends. They interact while playing their games online.
Ruffini said this year at Saint Mark’s has been more about exposure of the club than its teams or performances. Students can come by the school’s gaming room, with its PCs and chairs, if they are on a competitive team, although their grades must pass muster like any other student-athlete. Next year, he plans on it being a bit more competitive, with tryouts and rankings.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to get rid of the kids who want to do it for fun; they’re still going to be involved,” Ruffini said. “But what we really want at Saint Mark’s is a competitive team. We want to be pioneers and have other schools looking at us.”
McIntire shares the same vision for the esports program as Ruffini. He wants Saint Mark’s to field teams that can compete nationally. He would like to see the program become “a large and unstoppable force.
“We both want it to grow. I want it to be a lot bigger than when I started.”