May 29, 2024

Competing through video games

Kade Weis, one of the members East Union Esports team contemplates his choice of character in the champion select screen before a match.

AFTON - The sound of clicking filled the East Union CLC Library as five computer setups entered into a video game match. The five members of the East Union League of Legends Esports team played as a unit, working together through strategies and improvising when needed. To some, it might not be glamorous, but that corner of the library is where a hobby became something more.

Esports is the term used to define organized competition for multiplayer video games. This is not to be confused with the in-game competitive systems these games have which are used to matchmake players, but a more formal competition involving organized team play.

The popularity of these events exploded during the pandemic with a societal move toward online-focused entertainment. East Union followed the trend by creating a gaming club and entering tournaments against other Iowa high schools.

East Union is a part of the Iowa High School Esports Association (IAHSEA), who organizes and hosts esport competitions. The association was founded in 2019, but were forced shut down competitions during the pandemic in 2020. The organization is new, but has slowly been growing, adding new schools and games to their competition slate since its inception.

The school year is divided into three seasons with different games in each season, with seasons in the fall, winter, and spring. For example, the current spring season has three games, “Mario Kart,” “Valorant,” and “League of Legends.” Schools are not required to compete in all competitions. East Union in previous seasons competed in IAHSEA “Rocket League” competitions.

Requirements for students to compete are the same as any regular sport, requiring students to maintain academic eligibility and not be failing any courses. Some games with mature content require parental permission in order for students to compete.

Lori Paup, the Webmaster and Esports Coordinator for East Union, described why students would be interested in the program.

“They’re not in to those physical sports, but this is an interest they like,” said Paup. “They may not have drama or music or speech, but they want to be part of something else. This is what pulls in another group of people.”

Paup also invites anyone who has an interest in video games to give competing a chance. She described a moment when East Union’s “Rocket League” team played a match against what they thought were an unknown opponent.

When they finished the match, she revealed their opponents were three members of the East Union basketball team. They were unable to compete in the state tournaments, but still wanted to play.

“They thought that was pretty cool, to compete in-house with someone else,” she said.

Interest in each game depends on the students’ interest and the team they build from gathering peers. These can range from players who are completely new to a game or some who spent thousands of hours already.

“You have different levels in all those schools,” Paup said. “When you’re playing the schools, you don’t know what size school you’re going to be playing against that day.”

East Union’s team has a variety of skill levels as well. Lundy Sanson, who has more than 4,000 hours of in-game playtime for “League,” is contrasted with Cameron Hamilton who only started playing the game at the start of the spring season. The wide variety of skill levels can be hard to manage, but the availability of the program to anyone with an interest in gaming is the first priority.

During a practice on Monday, the team decided to try something different: completely swapping the roles they were used to playing during a few practice games.

“League” has five distinct roles that players assign themselves to, similar to sports like football with dedicated positions. With random roles, the team has to think about the game in new ways that they aren’t used to and practice working with each other to solve new problems.

“We play with random roles we don’t normally play,” said Kade Weis. “It’s a new situation, it makes them play different.”

The school has six dedicated PC setups for gaming, lining the east wall of the CLC. Even if a student doesn’t have a PC at home, they are free to join the club and use the computers available.

Participation in each competition is dependent on gathering students willing to practice and prep themselves into a winning team. East Union has seen turnover in students participating as different games come and go. When students graduate, there has to be new students from younger classes willing to continue competing, just like in any club or sport.

“It’s one of those things to find the right group that will commit to a time frame and commit to working with the other players,” Paup said. “I don’t know where we’re going to be next year, I have three seniors graduating this year.”

Paup still believes in the program’s ability to provide unique experiences for students. “If you’re willing to learn, you’re going to learn,” she said. “Practice makes you better, just like real life. You won’t know unless you try.”

Thursday, May 2, East Union’s League of Legends team qualified for the Iowa state championship as the 5th seed. They will be joined by eight teams from across the state of Iowa on Wednesday, May 15 in Marshalltown for the final competition of the season. The team is comprised of Cameron Hamilton (Top), Tidus Stover (Jungle), Lundy Sanson (Mid), Caden Shaw (Bottom), and Kade Weis (Support).

Nick Pauly

News Reporter for Creston News Advertiser. Raised and matured in the state of Iowa, Nick Pauly developed a love for all forms of media, from books and movies to emerging forms of media such as video games and livestreaming.