ELM CREEK — Shouts and cheers echo through the Elm Creek Public Schools industrial arts building.

It sounds like an intense sporting event, but the building is dark with no signs of activity except in the building’s classroom.

The lights are on and about a dozen students sit at the computers playing video games. They chat and joke with one another as they wait for their match to begin against Holdrege High School.

The Buffaloes coach, Ryan Hinds, whizzes around the room making sure the connection is working, making calls and sending texts with the HHS coach to be sure all the players are ready to compete.

When a match begins, each student’s face shifts from lighthearted to serious, intent on their objective. They cheer when they are successful in their mission or groan and holler if things didn’t go according to plan.

They often call for “Coachy,” their nickname for Hinds, to help them or give them pointers.

The room isn’t filled with spectators, and the students aren’t focused on getting a ball in a basket or to the end zone, but they still work as a team toward a common objective. This is eSports.

Hinds began eSports in January 2017 in Elm Creek. His wife, Amanda, is the secondary special education teacher at Elm Creek, and she saw a need for her students to get involved in something that interested them.

“She basically has a couple of her kids (students) that are both players and are on the team. She noticed that they both play video games and know video games, but they are not even friends with each other,” Hinds said. “That’s where this came in. Well, we were like, ‘Hey, let’s get them all together.’”

Hinds remembers playing video games as a kid at his grandma’s house on a Nintendo 64. His interest in eSports grew when he went to college, and he began playing League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle arena game.

“In college I just played with friends, and I watched the competitive League of Legends scene a lot. I love watching the pro scene. That was like my favorite thing to do because I love analyzing it,” he said.

Hinds was concerned there would be pushback about organizing an eSports team, but the school supported it fully. When the group first started, the students typically just hung out and played video games. They initially didn’t compete against other schools.

“We had in our minds since then that we wanted to play against other schools. We wanted more of a purpose than just video games on a Saturday,” Hinds said.

That summer, Hinds began reaching out to other schools about organizing eSports teams in order for the schools to compete against one another.

Broken Bow also had organized an eSports team, and Amherst started a team after connecting with Hinds. They held their first tournament in March 2018 in Elm Creek and had another tournament that spring in Amherst.

The participating schools had a meeting with Striv.TV CEO Taylor Siebert in the summer 2018.

“He reached out to us when he heard about our tournament in Amherst saying, ‘Hey, I heard about this at a bunch of ed tech (education technology) conferences, and I really want to get stuff started in Nebraska.’ We were like, ‘Cool. We do, too. Let’s work on this to get it together,’” Hinds said.

Nebraska Schools eSports Association began a nonprofit organization last summer, and it has grown from three teams to 21 teams from across the state this year. The teams play fall and spring seasons.

“We wanted eSports to be a year-round sport. So instead of getting burnt out playing one game constantly throughout the year, we split it up into two different seasons,” Hinds explained.

In the fall, the teams play Starcraft II, Overwatch and Rocket League. In the spring, they play League of Legends and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The teams play games rated T for Teen or below, and they do not play games with realistic weapons. They usually have one virtual competition each week, and they hold in-person tournaments during both seasons.

Elm Creek has 13 players on their team ranging from seventh to 12th grade. It has allowed the students to form bonds with people they may not typically interact with, and that interaction is a key part of the eSports objective.

“Let me tell ya, that’s a thing that some people really have to learn how to do is how to interact with people,” Hinds explained.

Hinds gives examples of how one of his players was quiet when she first started in eSports, and now she is talkative and even ran for student council. The students learn to work together and communicate with each other when playing as a team on games like League of Legends.

“It’s like they play roles. There are different lanes in your game you can go down to push the final objective. As they are doing that, they work together in the sense if they take the person out in their lane then they can just sort of go, ‘OK, I took my guy out. I can go help you now.’ And they can just walk down and go help them,” Hinds said.

The tournaments allow the students to meet their competitors.

“We really want to have an opportunity to play against each other … so our kids can get away from the online anonymity where, ‘I’m playing someone online so I can be as toxic to them as I want and never meet them,’” Hinds said. “With this, we are hoping to teach, ‘Hey, you are all playing online, but we are actually going to go see those people at some point, too, and get to know them.’”

The NSeSA regular season will run until March 28. Playoffs are March 30-April 13. The final four teams will compete April 17 at Concordia University in Seward, where Hinds has taken the helm as the head eSports coach. He will be building the team at Concordia, but he still plans to stay involved with NSeSA and the Elm Creek team.

During the recent match against Holdrege, an Elm Creek student playing League of Legends made a particular good play, and the entire team cheered.

“That’s why this needs to exist. He would not be playing any other sports. He would not be interacting with her (another player) playing a sport together. That’s the biggest thing. There are kids that never want to do anything else. They just like video games. They probably join to play, and find out they can be friends with a lot of these people,” Hinds said with a grin.

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