SHIAWASSEE COUNTY — In the fall of 2017, Perry Public Schools Information Technology Director Zach Garner and fellow technician Josh Bohnard set out to launch an esports program at Perry High School, staking their claim on an unused room in the building’s library.

The project was a directive from then-Superintendent Mike Foster, who saw esports — competitive video game-playing — as a way to engage a new demographic of students.

“He kind of saw it coming down the road and said, ‘You guys need to do this and get on it,’” Garner said, “so we got on it.”

The afterschool program — launched in January 2018 — began with about seven students, according to Garner, each using an outdated laptop to compete against other students across the nation in the multiplayer action-strategy game “League of Legends.”

And when the students weren’t clashing against their online adversaries, Garner and Bohnard were hard at work, donating time on nights and weekends to turn what was once a storage room for damaged chairs and tables into what they call one of the premier high school esports labs in the state.

“Every night when we would work on something. We’d (have to) take everything out of the room, do whatever we were doing, and then bring everything back in and re-set it up,” Garner said. “We didn’t really have funding for this room, and we still really don’t, it’s just been fundraising, donations, pulling money wherever we can.”

The Perry Esports Lab currently contains 12 computer stations — each outfitted with a custom gaming chair and corresponding headset — as well as a sizable LED screen used to project live matches.

Despite the substantial upgrades, Garner said the room has already reached capacity, as Perry’s esports program — which has eight-week seasons in the fall, winter and spring — has now blossomed to a membership of approximately 24 to 30 students per season, making it one of, if not the largest sports team at Perry High School, according to Principal Dave Myron.

“I think this captures a student population that doesn’t often participate in other ways outside of the school day, and that’s excellent because we can build great relationships with kids that we may not get outside the classroom,” Myron said. “I’d much rather have these kids in here with adult supervision and a positive environment than with nothing to do after school.”

Senior Damon Massey has played video games throughout his childhood, and has been a member of Perry’s esports team since its inception. He said what he’s enjoyed most is the connections he’s been able to forge with teammates.

“I like the teamwork aspect of how, if you don’t pull your weight, you might not be able to finish the game,” Massey said. “We’ve really connected with each other (on this team)…I’ve probably made more friends here than anywhere else.”

The rise of esports

While the implementation of an extracurricular esports program at Perry High School has been a relatively recent development, esports as a whole has been forging a global audience for a number of years.

According to a December 2019 report from Business Insider Intelligence, total esports viewership is projected to increase by 9 percent annually between 2019 and 2023, from 454 million in 2019 to 646 million in 2023. The projected increase puts esports viewership on pace to “nearly double over a six-year period,” according to the report, as approximately 335 million people watched esports in 2017.

As a result of the growing popularity, several colleges and universities have decided to launch their own programs.

Founded in 2016, the National Association of College Esports (NACE) now includes more than 170 member schools, represents more than 5,000 student-athletes and has distributed approximately $16 million in esports scholarships and aid.

In an effort to make things more affordable at the high school level, Garner and Bohnard partnered with five Michigan school districts to found the Michigan High School Esports Federation, or MiHSEF, in May 2019.

“The previous two years we had been participating in for-profit leagues because that was really all that existed,” Garner said. “They’re big nationally, but our problem was that it costs so much money to participate.

“In May, we sat down with a few other schools in our area that we knew were also starting esports teams or had just started them, and we said, ‘Hey, let’s just do this ourselves. We know each other, we can call each other and figure it out,’” Garner continued. “We started with six schools. Now we have 40 schools signed up and 23 active ones right now. It’s just growing like crazy.”

There are no membership fees or competition fees required to join MiHSEF, according to Garner, as the league strives to get as many Michigan school districts involved in esports as possible.

“Most schools, they don’t have the money (to spend),” Garner said. “If they see they have to pay ‘X’ amount per year, that’s a big hurdle. One of the missions of MiHSEF is to make this free, to help the other schools get started because we can get sponsors.”

Perry’s esports program is sponsored by LAFCU, though the team has also been able to obtain multiple federal grants targeted toward afterschool programs.

In terms of the competition schedule, MiHSEF conducts three eight-week seasons, each of which mirror the fall, winter and spring high school athletic schedules. Participating schools also follow the same academic eligibility standards as the MHSAA, according to Bohnard.

“The reason why we did the three seasons was to kind of help with kids that don’t fall into a (particular) season,” Bohnard said. “You might play football, but you’re not a basketball player, so then we can pick up some of those kids that might not have been able to play in a season because they play another sport.”

Two games are offered in the league during each season, according to Garner. For the inagural season in the fall of 2019, games included “Overwatch” and “Super Smash Bros.”

Right now, students are participating in “League of Legends” and “Fortnite” as part of the winter season, which concludes in late March.

During the regular season, “League of Legends” matches take place twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school, while “Fortnite” matches occur only once per week, beginning at 4 p.m. Wednesdays.

Once the regular season concludes March 5, teams will have two weeks to prepare for the playoffs, which will take place at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids March 21.

Preseason matches for the spring season begin March 25.

Expanding locally

While Perry may have launched its team first, other area districts are quickly catching up.

While hosting an afterschool game club inside his classroom at Owosso’s Lincoln High School in early January, science teacher Stephen Stauffer was approached by a student interested in joining an esports league.

With little knowledge on available leagues in the area, Stauffer turned to the internet.

“I did some reaching out, I did some homework,” Stauffer said. “I just kind of looked (to see) what was out there and the first thing that popped up that was free was MiHSEF.”

After sending a message to the league’s website, Stauffer came into contact with Garner, who promptly invited him to tour the esports facility at Perry High School.

Upon receiving a closer look at Perry’s program, Stauffer said he felt compelled to start an esports team of his own at Lincoln, and, after a brief conversation with administrators, he received the go-ahead.

“Those few hours after school, it’s the least we can do,” Stauffer said. “A lot of these kids are asking for chances to partake in some of these things, so it seems kind of silly almost to not try to offer that.”

Lincoln High School’s esports team will join Perry as a member of MiHSEF, according to Stauffer, and will begin competing during the upcoming spring season, which begins March 25.

Approximately six students have expressed interest in joining the Lincoln High School team thus far, Stauffer said, with more expected in the coming weeks.

The school’s computer lab will serve as home base for practices and matches, he continued, as Lincoln students will face off against other Michigan school districts in “Rocket League” during their inaugural season.

“We actually did a Facebook blast for donations and literally within 24 hours we raised $200, which was what we needed (to purchase Rocket League for each of the computers),” Stauffer said. “It kind of felt like it was meant to be, so I’m excited to see what’s going to come of it.”

Moving forward, Stauffer said he believes students will have much to gain from the experience of competing in esports, including learning how to coordinate with others.

“You can be an amazing player solo, but once you have to be held accountable, once you are part of a thing that’s something bigger than yourself, those are some skills that are going to translate into any job you partake in,” Stauffer said. “Not everyone can win a match, someone has to lose, and I think the ability to be able to partake in something like this and know what it feels like (to fail) and being able to overcome those types of feelings, I think something even as simple as that might translate well (for students).”

Lincoln High School is not the only institution joining MiHSEF this spring. Durand Area High School Thursday announced its upcoming participation in the league for the spring 2020 season.

Durand’s program will be led by systems administrator Adam Dennison, help desk support technician Dan Isom and high school paraprofessional David Mahorney. Each is currently volunteering time to convert a vacant high school classroom into an esports lab.

For Dennison, the effort is about providing another extracurricular outlet for students.

“We’ve got kids that are going home and they’re playing ‘Fortnite,’ or they’re playing these other games anyways,” Dennison said. “Some of them are unsupervised, some of them get angry, throw controllers. If we can make that a school activity and something that they can actually take into their future, with even the possibility of earning a scholarship, I mean, why not? They’re going to learn some valuable skills.”

Approximately 21 students have already signed up to join Durand’s esports program, according to Dennison. The team will face off against Perry High School, Lincoln High School and a variety of other Michigan school districts beginning March 25.

Garner said the growth of Perry’s esports program, and the MiHSEF league as a whole, has been astonishing.

“We didn’t expect it to happen so fast or so efficiently, and we certainly didn’t expect to be starting an esports league,” Garner said. “It’s been a lot of fun for us. Everything is unknown, it’s forging a path for sure. I think the students are enjoying it.”

For more information about MiHSEF, visit mihsef.org.

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