The world of eSports is coming to the Illinois High School Association later this school year.
Last week, however, it already was game on at Woodland.
Woodland opened its eSports program with a scrimmage last Thursday, taking on Brother Rice in a best-of-three scrimmage through the PlayVS online platform.
While over a dozen Woodland students have expressed interest and participated in the fledgling program so far, on Thursday there were three – Hayden Ashley, Jaysen McMenamin and Nick Plesko – representing the small public school south of Streator in a match of Rocket League, a massively popular online vehicular soccer game (think revved-up cars and trucks trying to score goals).
“I never thought the school would do this.” Ashley said before the match against Brother Rice. “And when I heard they were doing it I had no idea if I was going to enjoy it or not. But when I looked at the games and I saw it as an opportunity to hang out with my friends and represent what we can do, I figured why not, it could be fun, and it is.”
The world of eSports, or electronic sports, is a rapidly growing, multi-million expected to soon be billion-dollar industry worldwide. In schools, it offers competitive play, a chance for students to represent their communities, guidance for online interactions, motivation to remain academically and behaviorally eligible and – perhaps most importantly to Woodland’s volunteer coaches/sponsors, Tony Brown and Pat DuMais – a unique opportunity for students to experience being part of a team and all the positives that come with that.
“It’s another way for kids to compete and experience that team environment,” DuMais said. “We have some kids who haven’t had the opportunity to compete in sports before, and it’s a chance for them to compete and represent their school. …
“It’s something new, and it’s something that our small community doesn’t have much experience with, but it’s the fastest-growing sport in America. It’s really good of the administration to give us an opportunity to do this, and it’s definitely going to be a lot of fun.”
Superintendent Ryan McGuckin said Woodland took advantage of grant money available to subsidize the program using it to equip a classroom at the school with high-end computers and the technology needed to get up to speed – figuratively and literally.
“I’d always heard about (eSports) online, but I never thought it’d come to Woodland. I’m happy it’s here.”— Woodland freshman Nick Plesko
“I’d always heard about (eSports) online, but I never thought it’d come to Woodland,” Plesko said while waiting for last Thursday’s scrimmage to begin. “I’m happy it’s here. I like playing video games, in addition to playing the more physical sports.”
And Woodland is far from alone.
Another area small school, Earlville, has participated in eSports the past few years. They’re far from the only one, as participation has grown to the extent the IHSA – or IHSEA, the E standing for eSports, as it is listed on the IHSA’s eSports page – is planning its first eSports State Finals tournament later this school year, beginning with sectionals April 23, 2022.
How Woodland will fit into that first IHSEA-sanctioned state tournament remains to be seen. For now, the Warriors are getting their feet wet using a service called PlayVS to schedule matches against other schools, playing a three-week preseason of sorts before being paired against opponents more in their class and/or skill level for competition that counts toward the official PlayVS standings.
While Woodland is starting with Rocket League, there are other popular games available for competition, including sports games FIFA ‘22 and Madden NFL ‘22 and battle games such as League of Legends, SMITE and Super Smash Bros.
McMenamin – already a Rocket League player – competed from his wheelchair in Woodland’s eSports room Thursday while talking about the new experience of playing not only at his school, but for his school.
“It’s nice to be here, and we’re lucky we’re able to do this and mainly just have fun,” he said. “Even if we lose, we’ll still have fun. It’ll definitely be a different experience being at school doing it.”
The Woodland community can follow along with the team as matches are streamed online through a Twitch feed.
There will be a learning curve, both DuMais and Brown conceded, but both are optimistic about the possibilities – socially, academically and even collegiately, as there are eSports scholarships available – the program can open up for Woodland students.
Not to mention the fun.
“Just imagine if we had Tecmo Bowl or R.B.I. Baseball leagues at school when we were kids,” DuMais said.