High School Sports

Five states blazed the trail for high school esports. Kentucky was among them.

Another trophy was delivered to Titletown last month, but its only connection to football was Damian Laymon, a computer science teacher at Boyle County High School who assists Chuck Smith and his vaunted football program with its video and other technological needs.

Boyle County defeated St. Henry, 2-0, in a best-of-three “League of Legends” match for the first sanctioned high school esports title awarded in Kentucky. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association — the governing body for most traditional sports and activities in high schools across the commonwealth — staged the championship event at Martha Layne Collins High School in conjunction with PlayVS, a group founded two years ago to help bring competitive esports into high schools.

The Rebels’ victory marked the end of what was dubbed “Season Zero” — a sort-of test run before the first official season kicks off at the end of this month. Kentucky was one of five states to get in on the ground floor, joining Connecticut, Massachusetts, Georgia and Rhode Island.

Laymon, who also coaches pole vault for Boyle County’s track-and-field team, described himself as “the resident geek” at the high school. He played “League of Legends” casually, as did chemistry teacher Angel Spurlock, so students reached out to them to become the Boyle County’s first esports coaches. They obliged.

“They know it 10 times better than I do, so I said ‘I’m gonna be the guy who’s gonna be there to make ’em act like a team, to teach ‘em the discipline, to teach ’em the things an average teenager doesn’t have,’ which I think is the real value of this type of sport,” Laymon said.

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“You’ve gotta communicate and tell each other what to do on the multitasking, and then when it all comes down to it, we need to gather together and know what our strengths and weaknesses are when we’re all together,” said Trey Gordon, a sophomore who helped Boyle County win the inaugural KHSAA/PlayVS esports “League of Legends” state championship. Timothy D. Easley

Champions

“League of Legends” is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game developed by Riot Games. Each team consists of five players, each of whom has a defined role for the unit — marksman, support, jungler, top laner and mid laner — represented by a “Champion,” a character from the in-game lore.

Those roles aren’t dissimilar from what you’d find on a basketball team. A marksman is like an All-Star shooting guard or small forward — it’s from where the bulk of a team’s damage against the opposition will originate. The support role is like a point guard, usually hanging near the the marksman to make its life easier. Think of top laners as you would a defensive-minded center, absorbing blows down low and wreaking as much havoc against the opponent’s offense before taking a seat.

“So in basketball, you have to pass the ball around to get a goal, or points,” said Trey Gordon, a Boyle County sophomore. “You can’t just grab the ball and shoot every time, because otherwise — what are they gonna do? — all five players are gonna stack on you and you’re done. It’s kind of just splitting the work. You’ve gotta communicate and tell each other what to do on the multitasking, and then when it all comes down to it, we need to gather together and know what our strengths and weaknesses are when we’re all together.”

Champions each possess unique stats and abilities, and in player-versus-player matches are drafted prior to the start of the game, adding another element of strategy before things even get underway.

Boyle’s players were thinking about the finals well before the first Champion was drafted: they started analyzing St. Henry’s tendencies following their semifinals victory over Collins.

“They sat down and made a Google Doc and listed the other team’s strengths, their weaknesses, their players, what they needed to do and they came up with a strategy and followed it tonight,” Laymon said. “They put just as much strategy and scouting into these matches as you’d see with a lot of other sports.”

The Rebels finished 10-2 overall, their two losses coming against Collins in their season-opener and against Wolfe County, another state semifinalist, who was then undefeated. They carried themselves well for a first-year unit.

““It was not a lot of ‘the blame game,’ which can happen a lot in esports,” Spurlock said. “So that was good, the kids were really awesome at that. They just immediately went to talking strategy and helping each other out instead of salt.”

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Boyle County senior Kat Lark, who also competes for Boyle County’s bowling team, was part of the Rebels’ state champion esports team. Timothy D. Easley

Big business

Traditionalists might scoff at speaking about esports with the same level of seriousness as baseball, but the former has increasingly become more mainstream.

Robert Morris-Illinois in 2014 was the first college to offer scholarships for esports. Now about 125 colleges, including five in Kentucky — Brescia, Campbellsville, Cumberlands, Pikeville and Western Kentucky — do so. This school year about $15 million was awarded to students across the nation.

Video games are a massive industry — gaming generated about $138 billion in revenue last year, and esports competitions alone are expected to top $1.1 billion in revenue this year. For comparison, Major League Baseball — the highest-revenue generator of the three major sports leagues in the last year — brought in $10.3 billion in 2018.

People are watching, too: the 2018 League of Legends World Championship finals had 200 million spectators, almost twice that of the 2017 season’s Super Bowl. Tens of thousands have piled into arenas to watch championship events stateside and across the pond.

The audience at Collins was much more humble: about 200 spectators gathered in the school’s auditorium, but nearly twice that watched live via Twitch, a streaming site dedicated to gaming. Twitch encourages a shared viewing experience with its real-time chats and gives fans a platform to engage with other players outside of organized competition.

Two broadcasters, Alexander Archambault and Stephen Johnson, were on site for the season zero championship. They were rigged up backstage, out of the audience’s sight except the moments when the cameras shot to them.

“There are plenty of people from outside the state of Kentucky that got to watch this match and got to be a part of it by typing in the chat while the Twitch stream was happening, or by seeing some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that was going on,” said PlayVS Vice President Laz Alberto. “… It felt, for them, similar to if they were watching a professional ‘League of Legends’ match. The stream looked very similar and the production value was on par, or at least close to it.”

Johnson was a semi-pro player who transitioned into broadcasting. He’s 21 but in high school never dreamed he’d be making a living in esports.

“It’s really been interesting to see esports develop holistically,” Johnson said. “Right when it started it was like, ‘Oh I can play this or I could just watch it.’ Nowadays … when you look at job websites like Hitmarker, there are so many supporting roles. Support staff, coaches, broadcasters, players. It’s really a big scene.”

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Video games are a massive industry — gaming generated about $138 billion in revenue last year, and esports competitions alone are expected to top $1.1 billion in revenue this year. Timothy D. Easley

‘Everybody enjoys it’

Alberto, a California native, remembers coming home between two-a-day practices with his high school football team and playing video games constantly with his teammates. He never entertained the idea of being a pro player but games have been a “constant thread” in his life.

He’s excited to help normalize esports through PlayVS’ exclusive agreement with the National Federation of High Schools; about 10 states are set to compete in Season One (including Kentucky), which will conclude with championship events in “Rocket League” and “Smite” in addition to “League of Legends.” There’s no travel cost to schools (unless they make the finals, of course), and all that’s needed at the school is a computer lab and coaches willing to lead the charge.

So few barriers helps programs like St. Henry and Wolfe County be on more equal footing with Boyle County and Collins, whom they’d have a much tougher time dealing with in traditional sports due to sheer number of students and potential access to facilities.

“Not every school can have a batting cage on campus. For those that do, that’s awesome and it’s a great opportunity for schools, but for those that don’t, they might be at a disadvantage for baseball,” Alberto said. “For esports, pretty much every school has a computer lab and for the games that we play, the accessibility is there. We also work with the game developers to provide a level playing field so that they have the Champions unlocked, for example, when they’re playing ‘League of Legends’ or for other games they have other certain benefits given to them that level the playing field, things that you might not have if you were playing at home.”

When school districts consider whether to continue sponsoring an activity, a crucial question many ask is, “Will it reach a group of kids who might be underserved in some way?” Laymon and Spurlock say esports, a co-ed activity free of Title IX concerns, checks that box.

Julian Tackett, the commissioner of the KHSAA, is a believer as well. There were some hiccups along the way in season zero — unlike NASP and FLW, with whom the KHSAA partners to host its archery and bass fishing state tournaments, PlayVS is still in its infancy and figuring out logistics on its end — but overall Tackett, who watched the finals from a corner in the auditorium, is optimistic about the future of esports and other “sports activities” underneath the KHSAA umbrella.

“One of the things that I hope people will say, if and when I step away, is that we were willing to try some different things and we weren’t locked into 1985,” Tackett said. “We did that with the addition of archery, and bass fishing, and bowling. We’ve integrated students into the interscholastic competition program that never were involved before. That was very important.”

Tackett also recognizes how taking an open-minded approach to esports reflects on the KHSAA, and Kentucky as a whole.

“(It’s) putting our state out there and try to fight the reputation a little bit maybe that you’re a little bit backwards or a little bit country or whatever people might want to say,” Tackett said. “We may may be able to have some of the best farming in America, we may have had some of the best coal mines in America, but we also have some pretty intelligent kids that can do strategy gaming. Showing the country and everybody that we truly have everything to offer is very important to us. We don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a basketball state, as a football state, as some other state. You don’t want to do that. You want to show that your kids can do anything, and we try to give them that opportunity.”

Esports has brought different students into the competitive fold, but it has also attracted the attention of more traditional athletes in the halls at Boyle County.

“I’ve got several football players that have already said, ‘When you start that season one in February, let me know cause I want to play,’” Laymon said. “Everybody enjoys it.”

And if there’s one thing Boyle County appreciates, it’s champions. Football, track and field, esports — the fields of play are different, but they all end with rings and trophies.

“I thought just one or two people who’d heard about it from our teacher would come say (good luck) but even some of the football players — and they’re pretty huge, they’re not just gonna come to a bunch of nerds and say, ‘Hey, I hope you do well’ — but even some of them came and said good luck and stuff,” Gordon said of the lead-up to the finals. “So that was awesome.”

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