The first full season of high school competitive esports in Hawaii begins this week, as students and coaches hope to challenge preconceptions of what video games can mean.
Last semester, the Hawaii High School Athletics Association launched a pilot program for high schools to start esports teams, with 23 schools throughout the state starting their own teams, 10 of which were on the Big Island.
Now, with the pilot program successful and esports more popular than ever, Big Island high schools are preparing for the first full season, which the HHSAA is calling “Season One.”
The season is facilitated through a partnership between the HHSAA and PlayVS, an esports networking service that sets up schools with the accounts necessary to play three different video games popular in the online gaming community: “Rocket League” published by Psyonix, “League of Legends” published by Riot Games and “SMITE” published by Hi-Rez Studios.
Brandon Hamamoto, esports coach at Hilo High School, said students must choose only one of the three games in which to compete. “Rocket League” plays like a 3-vs-3 game of soccer, but with hyperactive vehicles in place of human players, while “League of Legends” and “SMITE” are “multiplayer online battle arenas,” or MOBAs: elaborate tactical battles, where teams of five compete for strategic control of a map using the unique abilities of different characters to outmaneuver and outwit opponents and destroy their bases.
So far, 20 Hilo students are signed up and, like in the pilot season, not enough students are interested in “SMITE” to field a full team. The Hilo team will focus on the other two games following an impressive pilot season.
“The pilot season went really well for us,” Hamamoto said. “We won the ‘Rocket League’ state championship, so I think we’ve had a lot of interest in that this year.”
Nader Shehata, esports coach for Kamehameha Schools, said his team is in the opposite boat: the vast majority of the approximately 20 students signed up are interested in “SMITE” — the team made it to a national “SMITE” tournament last season — while “Rocket League” has only attracted three students, the size of one full team.
“Last year, one of our ‘Rocket League’ members dropped out, so we had to do a 2-vs-3 game,” Shehata said. “But it was still exciting to watch.”
Because Kamehameha’s “Rocket League” team is so small, it will not have the benefit of being able to swap players from game to game, which could prove more strenuous than some might expect.
“There is a media perception that calling esports a sport is laughable — like, how could it be a sport, you just sit at a computer,” Hamamoto said. “But players put in the same effort here as players of regular sports. There’s a lot of mental fatigue, coordinating plays and then having to make them happen.”
Shehata said all he hopes for this season is for students to be able to connect with each others’ love of gaming in person in a positive environment.
“It’s different when you’re competing face-to-face than when you’re playing online,” Shehata said. “The air changes with so many other people in the room.”
Once the regular season begins Oct. 28, esports events are scheduled based on which games are being played: “League of Legends” contests are on Tuesdays; “Rocket League” and “SMITE” matches on Thursdays, with playoffs taking place in January. The Season One preseason began Monday and lasts until Oct. 25, when the deadline for students to sign up ends.
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