CLINTON, Wis.—There’s been one team at Clinton High School this year that’s won a conference title. It wasn’t the football or basketball teams. It was the Clinton Cougars esports team.

Early in the mornings and late into the afternoons tucked away in a computer lab at the high school you’ll find a group of students led by Technology Director Bryan Erskine preparing for their matches just like any other organized team would by training and game planning strategy.

This is the third year for esports in Clinton. The Cougars are part of the Wisconsin High School Esports Association, a group of over 200 high school teams. It’s organized differently than normal high school conferences, with teams going against schools of similar size rather than based on location.

The teams play popular games including League of Legends, the main game played by the team, along with Overwatch, Rocket League and Super Smash Bros.

League of Legends is a multiplayer online arena battle game.

Players take on roles of a champion with complementing abilities to work as a team to destroy the opposing team’s “nexus”, a structure similar to a home base that’s protected by various defenses. Teams draft strategy and plans for counteracting the opponents strengths and abilities.

There are two junior varsity teams and one varsity team. On the varsity team, seven Clinton Middle School students have made the jump from JV to varsity.

The varsity team led by senior team captain David Paulson-Warn finished 7-1 this year before wrapping up the conference title.

Paulson-Warn helped form the team three years ago, and with the help of Erskine, the after-school club quickly turned into a competitive breeding ground for elite gamers.

Paulson-Warn said he didn’t expect the team to be competing at the level it is today compared to when he first started.

“I had a love for video games and i came in and I wanted to be competitive and I wanted to make something from the ground up,” Paulson-Warn said. “We’re expanding pretty well and I want to help set the standard now for everyone going forward after I leave.”

That’s evident in how the team prepares for matches against other schools.

“Practices have evolved for the team,” Erskine said. “We realized we had gone beyond playing a match every morning to getting into helping build the team. The students took it upon themselves to help bring each other up and make each other better.

Esports has seen massive growth in terms of both revenue and fandom across the world. In 2019, the League of Legends world championship finals held in South Korea saw 100 million unique viewers tune in to the event. In comparison, the 2019-2020 Super Bowl between the San Fransisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs drew an average of 99.9 million unique views, according to ratings data.

Colleges across the country are also starting to offer scholarships for esports competition as the professional esports world continues to grow, having brought in $1.1 billion in 2019, according to Newzoo analyst group.

Erskine said the ability to offer esports to students through high schools helps boost access to a sport that can sometimes come with hefty price tags in terms of start up costs.

“Not only have we focused on the students and what’s best for them, but we’re giving students an opportunity to help build a new culture in their school,” Erskine said.

Paulson-Warn added, “We’re such different people, but when we are in the room together we all work towards one goal and it’s been really great to see us grow.”

Of esports, Paulson-Ward said, “it’s already arrived. Esports can go to anyone, it can reach anyone. Whatever country you are in, it doesn’t matter. The competition is there, and it’s real. It’s a mind game instead of a physical one.”

Students are able to build connections—and talk a little trash along the way.

“I’ve had some teams reach out and we share tips on certain things,” Paulson-Warn said. “Sometimes it’s a little gamesmanship but there’s no room for toxicity because we’re all impressed with how much the sport has grown. It’s really competitive, it’s awesome.”

On match day, the team huddles around a white board to game plan the upcoming match—with a public viewing area set up in the high school library where parents and students gather to watch each League of Legends game.

Clinton High School Principal Tori Franz said having an esports team helped give students who weren’t active in conventional athletics a sense of community.

“I think it’s it’s pretty cool that it started out of nothing and that it was student driven in starting the team,” Franz said. “There’s so much research on how if kids feel connected to school they perform higher in academics and attendance. The more kids we can get involved in this, the better off our school climate is going to be and better off education as a whole is going to be here at Clinton.”

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