MILLTOWN — With the explosion in the popularity of video gaming, it was only a matter of time before organized esports filtered down to the high school level. In Delaware, Saint Mark’s High School introduced a formal esports club this year, and it is already one of the biggest at the school.
The Spartans field teams in five sports — League of Legends, Rocket Leage, Call of Duty, Fortnite and Rainbow Six Siege. About 50 students were members of the club before the school shuttered because of the coronavirus, but one of the advantages of gaming is that it can be done as a team while each individual is at home.
The inspiration behind the club is senior Vince Artymowicz. He was on a team at Temple University in the fall and decided to start the team at Saint Mark’s. He asked classmate Emily Branca and a few others to join as captains for the various games. School administrators asked for a proposal, and Artymowicz submitted nine pages to principal Tom Fertal and assistant principal for student affairs Diane Casey.
“They both agreed that it would be great,” he said. “They wanted to start and esports club themselves back in the fall.”
Artymowicz is busy overseeing the club, and he is also the captain of the Rainbow Six Siege team. The other captains are Branca for League of Legends; Angelo Sisofo for Rocket League; Drew Magary for Call of Duty; and Kyle Sedar for Fortnite. About 50 people joined initially, but interest spiked as winter sports drew to a close. Drumming up interest was not difficult.
“We’ve all played video games for a very long time. We’re all passionate about video games. I know that a whole bunch of other grades are also into video games. People I know from other schools … I used to play video games with them. Everybody plays video games, whether it’s on your iPad in class when you’re supposed to be doing work or you’re at home with your friends,” Artymowicz said.
The Spartans are fielding teams in local and regional esports leagues, but more members of the club are not on the competitive side.
“We have both the teams and just for casual play. We’re planning on getting a room (at Saint Mark’s). In our room, we would set up consoles and some computers where people could just come together and just play. Come together as a community,” Branca said.
The captains do a lot of organizing, and they held tryouts to see who would play on the competitive teams, she continued. The club moderator, William Simpson, said the captains also study strategies for playing the various games.
“These games have a meta, where it is the best possible combination of characters that play at the same time. Emily’s in charge of making sure that the meta is maintained, that we are doing the best possible combination of 200 possible characters, that we’re playing the best five at any given time,” Simpson said.
Artymowicz said there are just two high school leagues, both of which cover the entire country. They are the High School Esports League and PlayVS. The High School Esports League offers college scholarship money, while PlayVS has partnered with the National Federation of High School Associations. According to Artymowicz, PlayVS has 13,000 teams.
The growth of esports is undeniable. According to a recent article in Forbes magazine, the global games market generated about $150 million in 2019, and the largest opening in gaming history – Grand Theft Auto V in 2013 – grossed $800 million in its first 24 hours and surpassed $1 billion in three days. Since then, it has sold more than 90 million units.
Esports is now a regular feature on television as well. The Overwatch League, after halting activities for the coronavirus, is back on March 21. The Philadelphia Fusion, members of the Overwatch League, have played home matches this season at The Met Philadelphia and Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, but they are scheduled to move into their own arena at the South Philadelphia sports complex next year. The University of Delaware has a dedicated space for its teams with different stations where any student can sign in and play.
Artymowicz, who will play Rainbow Six Siege at Temple University next year, said that is one of the factors that draws students to esports, besides the fact that they like playing video games.
“Esports is a billion-dollar industry in 2020. That’s not just including the professional level, but also collegiate and now high school. Video games is not just sitting around entertaining. It’s working as a team and it’s learning strategy, but it’s also going out and making money. It’s making it a career. It’s playing as a sport in college,” he said.
“For casual players, we just want everyone who is either interested in video games and wants to have fun, and to come together as a community, and share interests, find new people to play with. We have some kids who have never played with each other who play the same game and have gone here for four years. Because of this, they’re playing together, and it’s really great.”
Branca, who said her interest in gaming came from watching her two older brothers and their friends in their home, said she could not have predicted this kind of growth in the industry.
“It’s grown so fast. I remember watching when I was in middle school, and it was only a few teams. It wasn’t the thousands of teams there are today. It wasn’t college-level. It’s really cool,” she said.
In addition to the dedicated room at Saint Mark’s, the Spartans’ esports teams will be getting some new equipment this summer, according to Simpson. The school has begun a partnership with the Microsoft store. The store will provide high-end gaming computers, and the students will do some activities at the store.
The students also can practice and play separately using their own computers and headsets. They are able to communicate with each other through the headsets, although Artymowicz also set up a discord server, which enables a video group chat that can be regulated by the moderators for language and other inappropriate situations. They prefer to be together during competitions.
Some of Saint Mark’s early matches were streamed into the discord server, and the plan is to do more as the partnership with the Microsoft store develops.
“We want to be sure there’s no lag with our players so they have the best possible game that they can. We can post the videos later. We can post them on YouTube, Instagram. Once we get better equipment, they will be live-streamed with a two-minute delay,” Simpson said.
One thing about esports that is not necessarily true about traditional sports is the cross-section of students who can be on a team. Simpson said the inclusivity is a huge plus.
“People who wouldn’t normally hang out together … both play the same game. They both come on together and play. It creates these bonds that normally wouldn’t happen at school with normal social things. This is something that anybody of any size, sex, religion, they can all come together and be successful at it,” he said.
Artymowicz, who wants to make gaming his career, likes that anyone can compete. “They can still be athletes even if they can’t dunk a basketball.”