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From 'Fortnite' to 'Smash Bros.': Video gamers claim their place in Michigan school athletics

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Athletes often say, when they were young, they imagined themselves accomplishing great things in heroic situations at the top of their sport.

Visualizing grand accomplishment helps them succeed, they say, and provides motivation.

A long touchdown pass thrown or caught in the waning moments of a Super Bowl. The goal scored in overtime of the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals.

For Ryan Jones, that dream is “making a tear through losers, going to grands and taking the whole tournament” after being sent to the loser’s bracket in a "Super Smash Bros." video game competition.

University of Detroit Jesuit High School sophomore Ryan Jones is lifted by his teammates in celebration after winning an esports tournament.

Jones is an esports player.

“To me, what makes competitive gaming fun is the competitive mindset and wanting to constantly improve to be the best or beat the best,” said Jones, who thinks about pursuing engineering as a career.

The sophomore at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School is, many assert, an athlete in virtual reality, at a time when esports, short for electronic sports, are surging in high schools and colleges around Michigan, across the country and in international competition.

At least several high schools in Metro Detroit that play esports are forming a league.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association is considering whether to sanction esports and provide state championships.

About 12,000 people, including mostly high school and college students from around the country, gathered in Little Caesars Arena last week to play in an esports tournament, based on the battle arena game "League of Legends."

Fans take in the gaming action between Team Clutch Gaming and Team Counter Logic Gaming during their match at Little Caesars Arena Aug. 24 during the 2019 LCS Summer Finals.

And Michigan Technological University announced this week that in 2020, esports will be a varsity sport and it will eventually grant scholarships. The esports program would join the National Association of Collegiate Esports, or NACE, comprising more than 130 colleges and universities, and 3,000 student athletes.

NACE offers more than $15 million in scholarships and aid. In Michigan, current members are Siena Heights, Davenport, Northwood and Alma universities, and Aquinas College.

“We do currently have some esports club teams and other student groups participating in it,” said Suzanne Sanregret, the athletic director at Michigan Tech. “We do have this presence on campus.

“But, as you can imagine, through student activities and student-run organizations, they are kind of up and down. And, by housing it in athletics, we have the resources to assist physically, mentally and to create more of an academic and gaming balance through a structured program.”

Team Counter Logic Gaming and Team Clutch Gaming battle before a large crowd during the first day of the 2019 LCS Summer Finals at Little Caesars Arena on Aug. 24.

In Ann Arbor, at the University of Michigan, the Athletics Department is not involved in esports. But the campus is active with them, and Recreational Sports presides, as it does over club sports.

“The University of Michigan esports program is not a club sport, but the program is sponsored by Recreational Sports,” said Cybbi Barton, Recreation Sports program manager, club sports and esports.

“Right now, we will be sponsoring teams for 'Overwatch,' 'League of Legends,' 'Fortnite' and 'Hearthstone,'” said Barton, listing the name of games. “There is also a voluntary student organization on campus named Arbor Esports.”

In high schools, students and educators say, esports are mushrooming.

The ideas of which esports to play are percolating up from the students, who bring their favorite games to the competition, as long as the content is suitable for the school.

“The kids are playing it at every school, anyway,” said Dominic Scala, the varsity boys hockey coach at Divine Child, who is also coaching esports. “It’s just a matter of does the school have the space to do it. And, is it a true team.

“In the first year, we kind of found that 'League of Legends' is the game we would go with,” Scala said. “Mainly because (we) had a group that played, and it’s a very team-oriented game and builds all those kinds of skills.”

The Divine Child team went to a tournament at Lawrence Tech last year, when it also added the fighting title "Super Smash Bros." as a second game.

This year, it will add "Rocket League."

About 15 players have been involved, he said. But more will play with the establishment of "Rocket League," a game that's a soccer and motorsports mashup.

From bottom to top, Team Counter Logic Gaming players Kim "Ruin" Hyeong-min, Raymond "Wiggly" Griffin, Tristan "PowerOfEvil" Schrage, Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes and Vincent "Biofrost" Wang battle in the 3rd-4th place match with Team Clutch Gaming during the 2019 LCS Summer Finals at Little Caesars Arena on Aug. 24.

At Ferndale High School, a team is forming this academic year to play in a league that, at least prospectively, includes the University of Detroit Jesuit, Birmingham Seaholm, Oxford and Lake Orion.

“We’re having some growing pains putting a league together,” said Bill Good, director of community relations and enrollment and pupil services for the schools. “We’re kind of building from the ground up.”

Ferndale Athletics Director Shaun Butler said esports encourages students.

“I’m always looking for ways in which we can get students involved in a thing and in the school,” Butler said.

He said esports also can impart employable skills.

“I’m a former college athlete. So other people ask, isn’t this a sedentary thing?” Butler said. “No. This is complex. These kids are getting skills, which are life skills. And now, with the advent of colleges and college teams, man, we had to jump on it.”

Vincent "Biofrost" Wang of Team Counter Logic Gaming works his controls as he watches his screen during Day 1 of the  2019 LCS Summer Finals at Little Caesars Arena on Aug. 24.

Esports stress strategy, critical thinking, complex problem solving and quick reactions, local educators say.

They say employers say those skills are in use in the workplace.

“Just watching it and seeing it grow in popularity, then we kind of saw more colleges pick it up as a varsity sport, as a school district, we’re always looking for ways to help our students get into college and to have access to scholarship opportunities,” Good said.

Word of attempts to organize the league and other teams around Metro Detroit has made it to the MHSAA, which has been monitoring the growth of esports nationally and internationally.

“Certainly, we’ve been asking all the questions and doing the right research,” said Andy Frushour, an assistant director of the association. “And we’re probably on to two years now of at least trying to become educated on what all this is. Because this has become kind of a national thing.”

From bottom to top, Team Clutch Gaming players Philippe "Vulcun" Laflamme, Cody Sun, Tanner Damonte, Nam "Lira" Tae-yoo and Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon battle in the 3rd-4th place match with Team Counter Logic Gaming during the 2019 LCS Summer Finals at Little Caesars Arena on Aug. 24.

Last year, several associations in other states offered state championships in esports, for the first time, he said.

In November, about a dozen athletic directors and coaches met and discussed the status of esports and considered the future. A report was made to the representative council, the rules-making body of the association.

Frushour said MHSAA is in a bit of a holding pattern, sorting things out, before embracing esports as an athletic pursuit it should sanction, and for which it should provide state championships.

“At this point, we’re looking to our schools and saying, hey, is this something you want us to do?

“And, I think that’s the answer we have to find out right now.”