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A state champion gamer? Over 2 dozen Alaska high schools will offer esports next fall

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: May 16
  • Published May 16

Jonathan Steigleman, who graduated from Anchorage Christian School last year, plays the video game “League of Legends” at home in May 2017. Steigleman received an esports scholarship at Southwest Baptist University. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

National headlines tell the tale, or at least some of it.

From Fox Business: "Esports is the new ESPN."

Now add this headline to the mix: "Esports coming to Alaska high schools this fall."

With Raven Homeschool and the Yukon-Koyukuk School District leading the way, 30 to 35 high schools are expected to participate in Alaska's inaugural esports season at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

Esports are organized multiplayer video competitions, and the people who play them are no longer confined to their parents' basements.

Gamers are earning college scholarships and playing professionally in an industry projected to boast more than $900 million in revenues this year. Sellout crowds have watched competitions at Madison Square Garden. Athletes and celebrities are getting involved by investing in teams and leagues.

And soon, Alaska may crown its own high school esport champion.

"It's looking promising that we'll have a pretty strong fall eight-week session and an eight-week session in the spring with some kind of state championship," said Luke Meinert, director of technology for the Yukon-Koyukuk School District, the home base for the statewide Raven Homeschool.

"I think students are excited about the opportunity and having it be normalized in a school setting. There's a lot of students who aren't involved in other activities."

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District is among those interested in offering esports next fall, spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey said. There's even talk of offering esport coaches a stipend similar to those paid to coaches of interscholastic sports.

Alaska is the second state to join the Electronic Gaming Federation's high school program. Connecticut just wrapped up its first official season, EGF founder Tyler Schrodt said.

"(Alaska) was definitely not the state we expected to be second, and I mean that in the best possible way," said Schrodt, 26, who in 2013 started EGF in his dorm room at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

"It's a unique environment in terms of geography and culture and the high rate of home schools. It's a cool way to make sure we could put into practice our mantra of making sure esports are accessible to everyone to the degree possible."

EGF high school teams play three games: "League of Legends," "Overwatch" and "Rocket League." All are rated T for teens or E for everyone, and all involve multiple players per team.

"No violent first-person shootings," Meinert said.

Meinert is a Boise State graduate who credits his alma mater with sparking his interest in bringing high school esports to the Y-K school district and beyond. The Idaho college recently finished its first esports season, he said.

"I thought, hey, this would be amazing for Alaska high school students," he said. "I started researching programs and right now it's more popular at the collegiate level. There are something like 150 programs offering scholarships, which I didn't really realize — that there are tangible benefits to do this."

At least one Alaskan is working his way through college by playing video games. Jonathan Steigleman of Anchorage just finished his freshman year at Southwest Baptist University, which awarded him an esports scholarship out of high school.

Esports participants will be expected to maintain eligibility requirements similar to those in place for high school athletes, Meinert said. They will use their own computers and pay an income-based fee to participate, he said. EGF will charge teams a fee based on the school's socioeconomic status, Schrodt said.

Teams will be coed. A minimum of eight players per team is recommended, although Meinert said he's talked to some schools that expect 20 to 30 players.

Billy Strickland, the executive director of the Alaska School Activities Association, said if enough schools and districts field teams, esports could become an ASAA-sanctioned activity.

"It has the potential to connect with a lot of students," Strickland said.

Reaching students who may otherwise eschew high school activities is a big reason why Meinert wants to see schools give esports a chance.

"We're giving kids a buy-in to school," he said. "We know activities in general do that for us, so if that's one more draw, that can only help our academic rates and attendance rates."

And it's not just gamers who might get hooked. Twitch, a streaming platform that covers esports, will show Alaska high school competitions in the fall, and Schrodt said EGF will offer training for student broadcasters and producers.

"At this point in the industry, there's not enough qualified people to work with companies like us, so (we want) to train them in the practical skills that would allow us to hire them," he said.

Schrodt said some of his initial talks have included GCI, which could help EGF solve connectivity issues at rural schools.

In the Valley, Matanuska Telephone Association is working with the Mat-Su School District. It's hosting a June 2 gaming tournament at the Menard Center that will have a separate division for Mat-Su high school students.

Jonathan Babbitt, MTA's marketing director, says he thinks esports provide a tremendous opportunity for schools to connect with kids "through the power of fiber."

"There are a lot of these technically inclined kids who are already doing this at home," he said. "They don't play traditional sports, but they play esports."

Schrodt started playing "Counter Strike 1.6" when he was 10 years old. A decade later, he turned to esports when he was a resident adviser at RIT looking for a way to get more students engaged in "resident life." As an adult who now makes his living in esports, he has seen esports go mainstream.

"We're taking those in that community and giving them a new identity," Schrodt said. "This is not a kid who spends all his time in his parents' basement. One of the surprising things to us is there is not a typical gamer anymore. You could create that stereotype back in the early 2000s, but now you see football players, computer science majors, people in the media, all sorts of people from all sorts of places.

"Whether you do it frequently or not, everybody loves video games."

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