Not all high school teams have lost their seasons. Esports players across the country continue to compete.

Spring sports seasons are canceled across the country, but not all school teams are shut down. High school esports teams continue to compete despite the novel coronavirus pandemic closures.

Lindsay Cesari’s esports team photo for the fall season.

“On my team, half the kids play Minecraft on a PC and the other half of my team plays Super Smash Brothers Ultimate on the Switch. Both groups are competing against other students from all over the country,” says Lindsay Cesari, school librarian at Durgee Junior High in Baldwinsville, NY. She coaches a team that consists of 9th graders from her school and students from the district’s high school.

“We keep in touch using the Remind app and a gaming chat service called Discord,” she says. “We use both of these tools to communicate about upcoming matches, figure out technical glitches, and congratulate/console each other after wins and losses.” 

Cesari’s team plays in the High School Esports League (HSEL). Charles Reilly, co-founder of the HSEL, says the organization didn’t know what would happen when schools closed, but decided to extend registration and continue. Despite the fact that the HSEL recommends teams play together at school when they sign up “because that’s where the best experience comes from,” the league and playing don’t require it.

“With esports you can play remotely and still communicate with your team,” Reilly says. “All the action is happening on screen.”

The league also created the Social Distancing Cup, which allowed individuals who were not part of a team to compete and win prizes that companies donated.

Reilly has been hearing from teachers and parents whose kids are able to continue their HSEL season.

“We get emails and calls every day thanking us for continuing to do this,” he says. “We’re fortunate enough to be a business this hasn’t really affected us too much.”

Another high school esports league, PlayVS, mandates that players must be in the same room and play from school. That was one of the reasons Mary Klucznik chose that league for her team at Chittenango (NY) High School.

“I think it’s important for the kids to do it together and I wanted them to play not at home alone,” he says. “I wanted them to play where they could see each other and really form that cohesiveness as a team. I wanted a league where they had to play at school together.”

This was their first year with a team, although Klucznik has led game days once a week and an annual Game-a-Prom—where kids who aren’t as comfortable at the traditional prom come to the library and can dress formally or in cosplay (or neither) and spend an evening playing and hanging out—at the school for years. She had seen the social power of video games.

With PlayVS, Klucznik’s team, which had seven members in the fall season and began the spring season with 14 before schools were closed, competed in League of Legends, which was played on school computers and didn’t require any additional equipment.

Mary Klucznik’s team before school closed.

PlayVS temporarily lifted those restrictions because of school shutdowns, but there have been issues of access to computers and internet for some players. Klucznik has worked to keep her team members together in some way and competing. They have had one-on-one tournaments against one another and found a way to scrimmage other schools whose players had computers and internet access at home. They have had three of those informal competitions as a team, which is important to Klucznik.

“It’s connection,” she says. “They have a connection to each other, to their peers. They can play online all day long. They can play this game. But it’s about playing with people you know. It’s your home. It’s your family.”

Her administration has been incredibly supportive, she says, and even includes the results of these competitions on the recorded morning announcements being sent to students during remote learning. Students not on her team emailed to ask about doing a Fortnite tournament, so she set that up as well, continuing attempts to forge community and connection during this time of relative isolation.

This isn’t just about the fun and socialization either. Esports can turn into college scholarships and future employment opportunities, in many cases for kids who hadn’t considered either to be a possibility.

But of course, while it’s a gift that these esports teams can continue—it’s still not the same as before the pandemic.

“My kids, especially those that play Super Smash Brothers, really miss the in-person component,” says Cesari. “They’re doing fine from home, but they are sad we aren’t competing as a group at school—getting together for weekly play was a highlight for all of them.”

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