Detroit Catholic Central saw what esports was doing around the world: the amount of money and notoriety streamers and gamers were making, the amount of influence it had on those at the high school age.
Catholic Central saw its own success story: watching as Nick “Nickmercs” Kolcheff exploded as a pronounced streamer who has accumulated 2.01 million YouTube subscribers and 3.3 million Twitch followers.
Athletic director Aaron Babicz saw an opportunity to continue the legacy of the Shamrocks virtually, something he said he should have started years ago.
“The time was right four years ago,” Babicz said.
But with the emergence of coronavirus closing the school building for the remainder of the academic year and with the Michigan High School Athletics Association ending the winter sports postseason and the spring sports season, the expectation for the Catholic Central esports team was raised to a new level.
Instead of only trying to establish itself as a nationally-recognized esports team, this team is now the sole representation of the Shamrocks during this unprecedented season.
“I’m like, ‘Guys, in a matter of two months, you went from being a new program to carrying the flag for Detroit Catholic Central athletics,’” Babicz said.
Carrying the flag
That was something head coach Stephen Juncaj was ready to tackle.
A graduate of Catholic Central, the current junior at University of Michigan Dearborn has made an impact of his own in the gaming community. Juncaj was an esports semi-pro team owner, leading 60 team members as it competed in games such as Fortnite, Rocket League and Super Smash Bros.
Juncaj saw a chance for Catholic Central to participate in an exploding global phenomenon, taking advantage of the six-figure scholarships colleges around the country were giving out to gamers and streamers.
With already 20 students interested before Juncaj took the head coaching job, the team grew exponentially, expanding to as many as 90 players interested before the official tryout.
While his team is the only team left at Catholic Central competing, he does not feel a level of pressure to win.
“Instead of pressure, it is more like this is our time to shine,” Juncaj said. “I don’t think any of the kids feel too pressured. I think most of them are excited to showcase what they can do.”
Catholic Central is trying its best to put players in the best position to succeed, buying equipment for 10 game stations for the school’s library, including custom-built gaming PC’s and brand new monitors.
When CC sophomore Tristan Toma arrived for the first practice, seeing what was at everyone’s disposal, he knew this team was more than just a club.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is really it. We’re doing this,’” Toma said.
However, the game stations have yet to be used, with the school closing shortly after they were installed.
But that has not stopped the Shamrocks from competing.
Catholic Central has participated in a number of competitions, with Toma placing ninth in a Super Smash Bros. tournament on April 2, and later first in a small 10-man tournament.
Darin Koz also took third place in the Northwood 1v1 Rocket League tournament on April 3.
The Shamrocks have played different teams from New Jersey and Arizona, and were originally scheduled to participate in the Michigan High School Esports Federation Rocket League and Super Smash Bros. playoffs before they were both canceled.
For now, Juncaj’s message is simple.
“The goals that we set out is to play, play, play,” Juncaj said. “That was the message that we sent home to everyone was like, ‘Listen guys: we understand that this is CC and we’re trying to win everything. But the No. 1 thing we have to do is go out and compete this year.’
“‘Let’s get our name out there, let’s keep playing. This is the time to showcase what you got.’”
Playing together, apart
The Catholic Central connection. The brotherhood.
These are things that Detroit Catholic Central principal Patrick Fulton has seen struggle since the closing of the school. As the students remain at home, his goal is to keep students engaged, to keep their heads up even though, as he said, they are “bummed out” right now.
“It’s a part of our spiritual DNA as a school that when things get tough, we have to lean in on each other,” Fulton said.
While the esports team has goals to meet, its purpose, during the school shutdown, has been to foster community.
In the gaming world, it’s known as playing together, apart.
“I do think it’s kind of been an outlet for people to make new friends and to find new people to play with,” Juncaj said.
After the school closed during the week of the esports team’s tryouts, Juncaj has not turned anyone away, grouping teams in terms of skill level. He has been communicating with his team via Zoom and Discord, a Zoom-like program for the gaming community.
“I’ve gotten to know a lot more kids and I know a lot of kids that go on computers who aren’t in physical sports, like myself, aren’t as vocal and wouldn’t be out there as much,” Catholic Central junior Dylan Boer said. “Not the entire time is behind a screen, but maybe for some kids it makes it easier to talk to some other kids behind a screen and develop a friendship.”
While the long-term goal may be to become a nationally-recognized team, Babicz said, looking back, he would receive emails from students, saying they did not truly have a fit at the school.
For a time in which the world has stopped and the Catholic Central community has been separated physically, this esports team has brought the community back to the school.
“When I got this in an email, with kids saying, ‘I finally found my fit. Thank you guys so much for starting this,’ I’m like, ‘That’s it. I’m all in, 1,000 percent.,’” Babicz said.
Contact reporter Colin Gay at firstname.lastname@example.org or 248-330-6710. Follow him on Twitter @ColinGay17. Send game results and stats to Liv-Sports@hometownlife.com.