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Varsity video games? New CMS league has a new batch of athletes on controllers

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Kenneth Lee
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WFAE
The Olympic High School Esports Team

Traditional fall sports like football and basketball are underway in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, but one new league is in its inaugural season — and it’s not played on a field or a court. The CMS Esports & STEM League began its “Season Zero” a few weeks ago, with 12 schools competing in the popular video game “Rocket League.”

It's a soccer-like game in which rocket-powered remote-control styled cars are attempting to score the most goals. And the players are considered varsity athletes.

Olympic High School, located in southwest Charlotte, is one of 12 schools competing in the first season. During the school's recent STEM Fest, the esports team displayed a demo of Rocket League and a game the team developed.

“I started playing against other schools and I was live streaming, creating games. It's absolutely amazing,” said Miguel Cknales.

Competitors face each other in "Rocket League" in a best-of-three format each week during "Wednesday Night Lights," and their games stream live. Alongside the gaming competitions is a weekly STEM league competition, where schools create video games from scratch. The games are judged by fellow competitors on attributes such as fluidity of controls, creativity and level design.

The once-niche activity of competitive video gaming has boomed in the last decade. According to Statista, the esports audience is 532 million worldwide in 2022. "Rocket League" alone counts 16 million regular followers on the live-streaming service Twitch.

Once the dust settles from the 12-week regular season, local schools will compete in the playoffs, to be held in person at the Carolina Esports Hub on December 14.

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YTACNation
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Twitch

The new CMS league is part of a broader trend in esports. Johnson C. Smith University has launched its own Gaming Management program for students pursuing a career in the video game industry, and the Charlotte Hornets field a team called the Venom, which plays NBA 2K. And UNC Greensboro is hosting its first intercollegiate esports tournament this weekend, with teams from universities including UNC Charlotte playing competitive Fortnite in an esports arena.

CMS partnered with Stigler EdTech, led by Charlotte City Council member Tariq Bokhari, Carolina Esports Hub and Tepper Sports Entertainment to create the school district's first varsity-level esports and STEM league.

Nearly 500 students signed up to join the inaugural league. Only 100 students were selected to compete at the varsity, junior varsity and club level.

They don’t play in a gym or under the lights in front of large groups of screaming fans. But games do stream in front of a live audience on Twitch. The audience watching can interact with the commentators during each session in chat boxes. Matches are streamed on the YTACNation page on Wednesday nights at 5:30 pm.

More Than Just Gaming

Parents reading along may not understand how video games tie into a student's education. However, Olympic High School principal Casey Jones says balance matters when it comes to gaming, and the league is about more than button-mashing.

“The thing that I appreciate about the league is that it's not just about playing video games," he said. "They operate as an organization where they're building and designing their own logo, doing promos and doing articles to do advertisements for it. So there's a lot of different elements to the league that I think just makes a well-rounded student.”

And yes, CMS’ new varsity esports players are considered athletes. It’s not just simply picking up a controller and being good at the game — winning requires training. Players in the league spend hours each week in private matches and on Discord groups working together to be at their absolute best each week.

Another sigh of relief for the worried Mom or Dad thinking about screen time limits: Students participating in the league have to maintain academic eligibility through the competition. Students must maintain a 2.0 GPA. Coaches also take attendance and track behavioral issues for maintaining eligibility during the season.

Game Art and Design teacher Devica Latapershad is the mentor for Olympic’s Junior Varsity and Varsity team. She grew up a gamer like many of the students in the league. Latapershad teaches students about making and coding games, not just playing them.

Gamers in the league also receive hands-on coaching from professional esports coaches. And students aren’t limited to competing — they’ll also learn about coding, game development, broadcasting and video editing.

“A lot of students are shy. A lot of students are introverts," Latapershad said. "And this gives them the opportunity to practice, command their communication skills, kind of come out of their shell and then build a sense of community in the school."

Students are challenged to use their skills to build and create games in a competition with the other schools. Varsity esports team member Brian Ramirez helped create a game called “Invasion Alert” in the first week of the STEM league competition.

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Stigler EdTech
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Youtube

"It took me about three days to create it,” he said. “It's like a playable game. It's very challenging for some people, especially if you don't know what to do. It requires a lot of coding to complete.”

An aspiring video game developer, Ramirez hopes this league will help boost his skills.

People might think of a stereotypical gamer as someone with glasses and poor social skills. That’s not the case, participants and fans say.

Olympic High School football linebacker Aaron Davis credits games for helping develop his real-world skills.

“I learned most of my life lessons from video games and also what I need to know now, decision-wise and even with my reflexes, even though I play sports," said Davis. "Most of my reflexes are from video games, and that is because they actually teach me how to be a team player and teamwork."

He’s not a participant on the esports team — football still comes first — but he said he’s a fan. He wants to break any stigma around gaming.

“I think this all could go really far,” said Davis. “And to be honest, I never thought I would actually see this in person because there were so many people saying video games are not good for your health or mental or physical health."

Academy & Community Development Coordinator at Olympic Towonder Sain who facilitated STEM Fest, says the new league can open up possibilities beyond gaming.

"It gives a sense of belonging, but not just that,” says Sain. “You can play games. You can make it a career."

So far, Olympic High School is ranked 6th among the 12 schools competing this season. Their team still hopes to advance in the playoffs and have a shot at the first championship.

You can watch the school compete on Wednesday nights at 5:30 pm on Twitch: https://www.twitch.tv/ytacnation

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Kenny is a Maryland native who began his career in media as a sportswriter at Tuskegee University, covering SIAC sports working for the athletic department and as a sports correspondent for the Tuskegee Campus Digest. Following his time at Tuskegee, he was accepted to the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program as a Marketing Intern for The NASCAR Foundation in Daytona Beach, Florida in 2017.