It is the hot new sport and its popularity is exploding in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many activities for youth have been shuttered.

Esports is growing in Madison County and one local school is already dominating the competition. In December, Bob Jones High School’s Rocket League team defended its 2019 title, once again winning the state championship competition.

What is esports? Competitive, organized video gaming – and a billion-dollar industry. For high school players, it is not so different than traditional sports in the requirements for participation. Team members try out for the coveted spots and they are required to attend practices and maintain a minimum GPA. In Alabama, the sport is regulated by Alabama High School Athletic Association and sponsored by leading esports platform provider PlayVS.

PlayVS was formed in 2018, after founder and CEO, Delane Parnell, saw a need for an amateur esports platform modeled after traditional sports. In just three short years, the company is now active in 23 states, partnering with the National Federation of State High School Associations, the NCAA of high schools. PlayVS until now has focused on high school and collegiate programs. PlayVS Director of Brand and Community Alinn Louv said that in 2021, they will roll out a direct-to-consumer product for youth who want to participate in different game titles.

While esports is considered a sport, it also strengthens its players’ abilities in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“These kids are being prepared in an avenue that is perfect for STEM,” Bob Jones High School Esports Coach Aubree White said. “It is preparing them for the workforce, teambuilding, you have to have that communication aspect, you have to work well with others. Most kids that do participate in esports are already interested in STEM, these are your math and science kids who know strategy and love critical thinking and a challenge. When you put that together in esports it does practice all those things, especially with the technology aspect of it.”

The 2020 Bob Jones Rocket League state championship team consists of captain Josh Vannoy, and fellow students Jordan Hazuga, Mateo Santiago and Cooper Skelley.

“Esports takes many hours to be good at a game, don’t give up – the way to get better is practice and watch more-advanced players to learn their skills,” said Vannoy, who holds workshops for kids new to esports. “In the end, it pays off. Esports is a super fun environment with the other players and working as a team is the best feeling.”

Vannoy hopes to achieve an esports scholarship to college and go pro, a goal that is definitely attainable according to his coach.

“Josh is so good it is ridiculous,” White said. “Sometimes I think that he doesn’t even know what to do with his talent.”

Louv said that there will be plenty of avenues for players like Vannoy.

“There is a huge emerging industry for esports,” Louv said. “If your child is interested in pursuing a career in esports, there are so many opportunities beyond being a professional player, whether it be coaching, broadcasting, social media – or with video, game design, coding, engineering – there are so many different career options in esports. It is a very exciting time.”

Vannoy’s teammate Santiago, also a junior, can usually be found on the track field and cross-country course, as one of Bob Jones’ top-ranked runners. Esports for him has the same draw as distance running. He said his favorite part was “competing against other people that are trying their best to win. Playing normal video games isn’t as fun but when everyone is trying their best it gets competitive.”

Louv said highlighting the similarities between esports and traditional sports has been a goal of PlayVS.

“The same benefits that a child would have participating in a traditional sport, they will gain from esports. We really push that this is a sport. There is a coach there. The students are learning team-based skills like communication, leadership, collaboration, strategic thinking. It is amazing to see how similar a practice session is for esports, as basketball for example, when the team is strategizing plays and scouting opponents.”

For many players, esports has provided an avenue to gather safely – albeit virtually – during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 state championships pivoted to virtual and Louv said that as much as they would like to return to in-person play, PlayVS is committed to the safety of their players and has designed the program so those players can play from home.

“I love that esports is flexible,” White said. “This fall we were still able to have a full season and even go to the state championship. Even though we weren’t in person, the kids still feel like they are part of something. For kids, their sports, clubs and extracurriculars are their outlets but during this (pandemic) we have had to call off meetings, get-togethers and community service. But esports is the opposite of that. If anything, the program is stronger.”

White has plans for the program, including a dedicated space on campus for the esports teams to perform and showcase their sport, but had to put those plans on hold in 2020. Even so, she said that for esports, it is only the beginning. In the past, the school has competed in Rocket League, League of Legends and SMITE. In spring 2021, due to its rising popularity, the program added two more games, Madden and FIFA.

“I don’t see my numbers ever lessening, I just see growth … I only see it getting bigger and bigger,” White said.

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