BULLHEAD CITY — River Valley High School has an esports team competing in two different games: League of Legends and Rocket League.

“We originally started with River Valley Gaming Club because we were running through our 21st Century Grant that our school has,” said Kurtis Nielsen, RVHS League of Legends head coach.

“Esports is composed of a whole bunch of students that you wouldn’t find in other athletic arenas such as baseball or football,” said Jared White, Rocket League head coach. “These students find their passion during online video game competition with other students and other kids around the world. Our goal is to take their passion for gaming and bring it into the educational environment, so there’s a positive aspect for them to enjoy what they are doing but teach them some of the beneficial components that go with this program.”

Nielsen said that the program focuses on working on effective communication, critical thinking skills, decision making, strategizing and all the different aspects that come with playing a competitive video game.

The reason why RVHS esports teams are participating in League of Legends and Rocket League is that those are the two games that are endorsed by the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

“We had a League of Legends team last semester for the fall and they made it to (the state) quarterfinals,” said Nielsen. “This semester, we have the same team coming back for League of Legends and we also have a Rocket League team.”

Nielsen said that it’s a five-on-five team game. Each person has different roles to play and all of those roles have to work together to achieve objectives and defeat the other team — whether that will be through objective wins or beating the other team so comprehensively that they have to surrender.

“Players have to communicate with one another about what it is that they want to do — when to take certain objectives, when to engage in certain aspects of the game, whether it’s team fights or neutral objective control,” said Nielsen.

Nielsen said that League of Legends has mirrored objects so there are three lanes that players get to work in as well as jungle areas that are in-between those lanes. Each lane has its own set of towers that each team has to break down and push inward until they reach the enemy base, which is where all those towers are connected.

Once all the towers have been destroyed, the team can push into the enemy base, called the nexus, and once that nexus is destroyed that team has won. There are neutral objectives such as a dragon, that if killed will give the player certain boosts, and another is called barren, which gives the player a strong ability to push into the enemy base. Capturing these types of neutral objectives makes it easier for the players to destroy the other team’s nexus.

“That’s why communication, decision making and critical thinking is crucial because they have to know when to push, where to push, where to position themselves, making sure where the enemy team is and a lot more,” said Nielsen.

Rocket League is played with three players on each team in a soccer game that is played with radio-controlled cars that have rockets attached to them.

“The first initial seconds leading up to the start of a volley, the players will consider what position they are in,” said White. “There’s four different starting positions that the cars will place themselves in. When the game starts, it’s up to the team to decide if there’s going to be a defender who stays back to defend the goal.”

White said that teams either will pick a goalie or will start a rotation where after a player hits the ball, the player will retreat to a defensive position while their teammate follows up behind them. The three players also have to work on their crossing strategy so that they can get the ball into a position to strike it into the goal.

“This game is about anticipating where the ball is going to be before it gets there and you have to anticipate your shots,” said White. “It comes down to field positioning and where your teammates are positioned and the opposing team. Learning to control the rocket mechanism of the car is also a whole new set of skills to learn. And your high-tier players have spent a lot of time hovering their cars around or just hovering around obstacles.”

Both coaches encourage their players to look at colleges that offer scholarships for esports.

“The whole concept of esports in an educational environment is so new that the availability of scholarships is somewhat limited,” said White. “However, we do encourage them to go looking for those scholarships, being that more and more colleges are offering scholarships.”

Nielsen said there is a high threshold as far as rank is concerned to be considered for the scholarships; players must rank in the top 10%.

“One student who plays League of Legends, our best player of the team, ended last season ended as a Gold 2 rank, which every ranking system has four tiers to it,” said Nielsen. “I’ve never heard him talk of college before, never heard of any dreams or ambitions of college from him. One of the things that he told me was that when the recruiter came to visit, he told him that players have to be in the Platinum 2 tier to be considered for those scholarships. So he told me that he has to get 52 more wins and that is awesome because that means that he sees potential there. So it’s kind of really eye-opening to see other kids having their eyes open to other avenues of attending college.”

Both coaches said they are fortunate to have a very generous career technical and education department that allows them to play and practice.

“League of Legends has their competitive league on Tuesdays and Rocket League has their competitive league on Thursdays,” said Nielsen.

Both coaches said there are many benefits to students joining an esports team.

“When those kids start communicating with each other and build that trust, what they inadvertently build is a community for themselves,” said Nielsen. “In other competitive events, if those don’t interest them, they will never engage with the kids who do those programs. This gives them a place to belong where they can go with their friends and do something that they love to do.”

“Another benefit is that our students can comprehend the difference between virtual reality violence versus actual violence and, as far as the school boards are concerned, that’s a big heated debate whether or not we should allow violent games,” said White. “That’s why games like Overwatch got tabled in the previous semesters because they are trying to figure out if this game has too much violence related to guns. But our students can look at this and say this is just a video game and we are not becoming more aggressive by playing this game.”

“I think that what a lot of (people) don’t give them credit for is that they are good at determining what happens in a video game and how to determine between fiction and reality,” said Nielsen. “These games that they are playing have a lot of mechanics, that require a great deal of maturity. A game that requires you to play with others, to be respectful, to communicate and to learn the mechanics of how to play, that takes a high level of thinking.

“I think that sort of supersedes the worries that much of — not only our local school board has but the state school board has about students and violent video games. It’s like they don’t believe that students can tell the difference and I think does a disservice, I don’t think it gives them enough credit. Our kids have been playing for two years and the only time they get angry is when they lose and they want to do better. But they’re not being aggressive in any form, they just want to do better the next game.”

Overall, both coaches said that they are proud of the program and the students that are participating in the esports teams.

“I think the more that we advertise and the more that we get out and talk to kids and show them, the larger this community is going to grow,” said Nielsen. “Maybe a lot more kids will find a home that they can belong to that they may not have thought that they have had before.”

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