By JD McCarthy
For the Opelika Observer
Alabama high schools have a rich tradition in football, basketball and soccer but three years ago they entered one of the fastest growing sports in the country.
The AHSAA partnered with PlayVS to bring esports to Alabama high schools and Smiths Station was one of the first schools to field a team. According to the AHSAA website PlayVS “is the premier high school esports provider” and “is the single destination where players come together to compete, fans gather to spectate and coaches manage their programs.”
Emma Whitlock is the coach of the team but does not shy away from admitting the players know more about the games than her.
“I tell people all the time, really, I’m more of the organizer than actual coaching. The kids almost always know more about the games than you do,” she said.
Whitlock, who is a gamer herself, used to joke with her fellow teachers about sponsoring an esports team and when the AHSAA announced the move she made sure Smiths Station took advantage of the opportunity.
“I’m the kind of person who likes to play video games and I know there are students that really enjoy that and I’m very much about getting students involved in school activities,” she said. “Esports is another way to get kids involved and it’s something that can also reach those kids, who may not be your athletes, they may not be the ones to join the math club or whatever.”
Unlike traditional sports, eports do not require teams to be in the same physical location so teams would typically meet at the school’s computer lab on match days. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the competitors to adapt and now they log in from “off-site” locations to compete. This has actually helped some of them as they were previously limited by the computers at the computer lab.
Currently four games are offered for teams to compete in, League of Legends, Rocket League, Madden and FIFA. Smiths Station competes in League of Legends and Rocket league with five kids competing in each of the games.
For League of Legends the two teams will play two games against the opposing team and Rocket League is a best of five series.
The League of Legends team is made up of Anthony Agner, Kate Whitlock, Jack Austin, Cody Brownlee and Jakob Shaw. The Rocket League team actually has two separate teams that compete at two separate levels. The Black team competes at a regional level and plays teams across the country and the regular team competes at a state level. AHSAA rules limit each school to only one team per school so this allows more students to be involved, which is something Emma Whitlock feels strongly about.
“I think it’s all about them having the ability to get involved and do something and then again to meet new people,” she said. “I don’t want to generalize but a lot of times the personalities of these kids that are gamers they stay to themselves a little bit more and they get to be able to meet more people and have a sense of pride just like any team would have.”
The League of Legends team has a 3-3 record, good enough to be ranked 16th in the state and the Rocket League team a 4-6 record and is ranked 32nd in the state.
The most common response she hears when she tells people she is a coach for an esport team is that it is not a “real sport,” something she understands but strongly disagrees with.
“I get that kind of sentiment from people that it’s not necessarily the most athletic thing, but the kids really do build skills, like communication, like teamwork. And that’s the same thing they would be doing if they were playing a quote unquote ‘real sport.’ It’s just a different way to build those skills, so that’s the biggest thing.”