PALMER — While neither of the Palmer High School esports teams that made it to the national semifinal advanced to the championship, spirits were high on Wednesday at the end of their inaugural season.
Following a bumpy start, the esports program in the Mat-Su Borough School District was running like a well-oiled machine by the end of the year to hear the good news. Esports will be sanctioned by the Alaska School Activities Association in the fall.
“I think the idea is just to keep finding ways to grow, it getting it sanctioned is the first big step,” said Palmer High School activities director Dale Ewart.
Some changes will come with the entrance as a sanctioned ASAA sport in the fall. The esports teams that had been assembled in the fall functioned as a subsidiary of the Electronic Gaming Federation. Both EGF and Play Vs. made presentations to ASAA, which ultimately decided to go with Play Vs. Two major differences were identified between the companies by Ewart, who sits on the ASAA board as the Region III representative. Play Vs. has a longer history in providing esports, and has full gaming rights for all of the games it offers. The other major difference is that Overwatch, which was popular among students in the inaugural season, will not be offered next year.
“Play Vs is one that’s actually a part of the the (National Federation of High School Sports) network. They don’t allow any of the first person shooter games and that’s been the biggest concern from superintendents and school boards and school districts is not having first person shooter games,” Ewart said.
Students from Palmer High School competed in the EGF National Semifinals for both Rocket League and Overwatch. Prior to each match, the team assembled to go over strategy for the game. The Rocket League Team features Jesse and Tobin Hushower and Sam VanderWeele.
Their ability to quickly react to things going on, one second you’re on offense and then the next second you’re going to be on the other side of the field blocking your goal, it took me a while to get used to watching it,” Sarah Kitzan said.
The team learned as the season progressed. Initial struggles of software on school computers, scheduling issues and an earthquake were smoothed out in the spring semester.
“I think it was actually pretty impressive how both of our coaches handled it because it was so new and both of them knew almost nothing about these two games and they took a lot of time to actually get to know everything about them make sure everyone was involved,” said Chris Reich.
Reich was part of the Overwatch team that competed on Wednesday. After suffering two quick losses in a best-of-5 match, panic ensued as Reich briefly had to step away from the keyboard.
“I don’t know what exactly happened when I was gone but I’m pretty sure a lot of regrouping did happen,” Reich said. “That did give everyone a chance to level down because tensions might’ve been a little too high.”
Though the Moose were not victorious, the team loosened up and enjoyed playing in their last esports competition of the school year. Not only are students competing on a National level for high school esports glory, but learning valuable skills in a burgeoning industry. Not only were the students excited, but the coaches as well.
“The first time I watched an Overwatch league match, I was like wow. I really got into that,” Kitzan said. “I’ve been spending time watching Overwatch league on the weekends.”
Some of the benefits of competing online is the ability to play a home game no matter the opponent. While there are no bleachers in the Palmer High School computer lab, the Hushower’s mother, Carol, watched her sons compete in both Overwatch and Rocket League National Semifinals at Palmer High School.
“I really am proud of them,” Carol Hushower said.
Hushower has been educating herself on her sons’ esports competitions throughout the school year. She was excited when one of the colleges Tobin is considering has an Overwatch team. One of the staples of gaming at home that Henry and Kitzan have brought to the high school esports team is the element of snacks. Pizza rolls and M&M’s were available for students, but the team favorite is VanderWeele carrots. Proudly displayed on a corkboard behind the computers are dozens of empty carrot bags. Both Braden and Sam VanderWheele compete on the esports team at Palmer High.
“There was suddenly an esports club at school and I was like wow, all my friends are doing it I should too, even if it is Overwatch,” Braden VanderWeele said.
Braden is proud that his family’s carrots are the favorite snack of his esports team, but says that he is not as anxious to get after them as some of his teammates who don’t have constant access. He estimates that he’s spent about as much time with his hands on a keyboard as he has with his hands in the dirt, and was thankful for his parents support.
“My mom is a counselor here so she always helps kids with college things and she was very excited when she found out that there was going to be scholarships involved so she was like yes, go fight win,” VanderWeele said.
Not only were parents in the crowd huddled around computers, but Tomas Anderson and Christine Duffy from the MSBSD Office of Instruction attended to watch as well.
“You guys helped grow this program this year. You did an excellent job. It’s just amazing to listen to the way that you talk to each other, the way that you strategize and the way you collaborate and how you overcome the boundaries that you did this year to make it this far is really an amazing feat considering this is probably the first time you’ve done something like this on such an organized level. We just want you guys to feel really proud of yourselves,” Anderson said. “To me it couldn’t have been more successful.”
While neither team took home the crown, the gamers were happy to have made it this far. Tobin Hushower was ecstatic when they made it to the National Semifinal.
“First thing is yell, high five your teammates, then when you get home it’s kind of be psyched for some air punches,” Tobin Hushower said.
Both brothers participated in both semifinals. Older brother Tobin was the team captain for the Overwatch team, and barked out orders as the team suffered damage. Carol Hushower enjoys watching the dynamic of teamwork as her sons work together.
“Whenever I’m playing with Tobin I can play however I want and he will adapt to it, so I can be extremely aggressive or extremely far back and he will do whatever it takes so we can win,” Jesse Hushower said.
Though the Palmer High esports team already followed ASAA requirements, there is considerable excitement around the sanctioning of esports. While Overwatch has the most players per team, Ewart believes that participation will remain strong into the future of esports at the high school level.
“We want to try to maximize participation, especially for schools that have large teams and so we’re talking about you would have multiple teams. You’d set a roster like basically you would have JV, varsity, and C-team,” Ewart said. “We definitely just want to try to improve on what we’ve got going and get more people involved.”