Video games as a sport? 10 schools complete inaugural esports season

  • Kamehameha Schools students Ilihiaikapohu Puniwai-Ganoot and Kaylina Kaili-Kualii practice "League of Legends." (Photo courtesy Nader Shehata)

The state’s first esports season came to an end this month, with hopes high for an even more successful season next year.

Earlier this year, the Hawaii High School Athletic Association launched a pilot program for high schools in the state to start esports teams and compete with each other on a state level. Twenty-three schools joined the pilot program, 10 of which were on the Big Island.

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“It’s been a really positive experience for our players,” said Arjuna McGowen, the esports coach for Pahoa High School. “It’s been inclusive for students who wouldn’t necessarily participate in team sports otherwise.”

Thanks to a partnership with esports networking service PlayVS, Hawaii schools were able to compete in three different video games: “League of Legends,” published by Riot Games; “Rocket League,” published by Psyonix; and “SMITE,” published by Hi-Rez Studios.

All three games are team-based online multiplayer video games, but are significantly different. “Rocket League” is effectively a game of soccer but played with cars instead of humans; “SMITE” and “League of Legends” are “multiplayer online battle arenas,” which are elaborate clashes between a wide range of unique characters in order to control and ultimately destroy the opponent’s various bases.

Despite their differences, all three games have a strong emphasis on team communication and strategy.

McGowen said the Pahoa team — which ranged from nine to 12 players throughout the season — limited itself to only “League of Legends,” but Nader Shehata, esports coach at Kamehameha Schools, said his team competed in all three.

“It turns out there weren’t enough people in the state to do a good “SMITE” league, so we ended up playing nationally,” Shehata said. “I think we ended up being about 16th in the nation.”

Both McGowen and Shehata said the esports program met with little resistance from teachers and parents alike.

“I thought I’d get some resistance from people,” Shehata said. “But I think people were more curious about it than anything.”

When the prospect of esports is brought up, Shehata said, there is often a question of “is this even a sport?” But, he said, much as how traditional athletics improve the physiques of players, competitive esports — particularly team-based games such as the three offered by PlayVS — can improve reaction times, quick decision-making and more.

Importantly, McGowen said he made sure the team had all the discipline of a traditional sports team, rather than just a collection of students who play video games after school.

“We use the same exact eligibility requirements (as conventional sports),” McGowen said. “Maybe they’re even more serious.”

McGowen said players this season were required to maintain grades at C-level or above. Next season, he said, he might raise the standards to require Bs or higher.

“The students take it very seriously,” McGowen said. While he said his team did not have a particularly successful year — getting knocked out of the first round of the state playoffs — players trained rigorously and improved as the season went on.

“The emotions are real,” Shehata said. “They’re hurt when they lose, just like any sport.”

Both coaches see no reason why a second esports season would not happen, or why it would not be bigger and better than this year’s.

“I only see growth next season,” Shehata said. “We had only 15 kids playing this season, but we’ve had other kids wanting to join.”

This summer, for example, Shehata said he hopes to run a training camp similar to traditional sports camps so kids can learn strategies and teamwork.

Shehata said he would also like to see additional games join PlayVS’ available roster. He suggested an “esports football team,” playing a football game like the “Madden NFL” series during the regular football season.

McGowen, meanwhile, said he thinks there would be considerable interest from students toward fighting games such as the Nintendo-published “Super Smash Bros.” series, although he added that part of the difficulty of adding other games would come from obtaining appropriate hardware: while “League of Legends” is free to play to a certain extent and can be played on computers without significant graphical capabilities, “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” can only be played on Nintendo Switch consoles, which sell for $300 each.

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PlayVS has teased that two additional games will be added to its lineup “soon,” but has not announced what they are.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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