Southold introduces North Fork students to esports

A handful of Southold High School students have joined a growing trend that has swept academia nationwide in just a few short years: esports.

After learning more about esports’ popularity and receiving support from school administration, technology instructor Jason Wesnofske started Southold High School’s new competitive video gaming league. Lit by color-changing LED strips tacked where the walls abut the ceiling, the Southold esports meeting room has six stations, complete with gaming computers, monitors, keyboards and controllers and red and black chairs designed for comfort and stability to power a player through several hours of gaming.

This past winter, nine Southold students faced students from other New York schools in best-of-five contests in the video game Rocket League. The tournament was facilitated by the High School Esports League, which organizes competitions for more than 6,000 schools and 50,000 students nationwide. 

Rocket League is perhaps most succinctly described as car soccer. In each five-minute match, teams of two players drive rocket-powered cars around a stadium and attempt to hit a large ball into the opponent’s goal, while also executing acrobatic offensive and defensive maneuvers. 

Last Thursday, two teams of Southold students competed against Commack High School and Rochester’s Greece Central School District for a shot at first and third place, respectively, in the state championship that capped the bracketed competition. Southold is one of three schools that registered two separate teams — red and white — in this winter season, which is shorter and hosts fewer teams than the more popular fall and spring runs. Although there are 37 high school teams registered in New York, only 19 participated in the winter league.

While the collective Southold group experienced a stellar debut season, both the red and white teams lost four straight matches in the best-of-seven state championship. Despite these losses, the students, their advisor and the district’s administration still feel a sense of accomplishment.

“It’s been outstanding,” Bryan Henry, a 17-year-old senior, said just minutes prior to putting on his headset and competing in the state championship. “I knew we had a really solid team, and we have one team fighting for first and another team fighting for third, which is way better than I could have ever imagined.”

The popularity of esports in high schools and colleges across the nation has skyrocketed in just a few short years as gaming culture has simultaneously bolstered its mainstream presence in popular culture through television and film adaptations and ballooning online communities. Twitch, a video game-centric livestreaming platform, reports an average of more than 35 million visitors every day.

“I definitely see a value in this,” Mr. Wesnofske said. “It’s growing very fast. When I went to [an esports] conference [last year], I think there were 3,500 [high school] teams, now there’s over 6,000 teams nationwide.”

From Southold district superintendent Anthony Mauro’s perspective, esports are the latest way the school can help students who intend to apply to colleges and for scholarships. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, which writes the rules of competition for most high school sports throughout the nation and recognized esports as a sport in 2018, $16 million in scholarships were awarded to students during the 2020-2021 academic year.

“This is already something that has become incredibly popular with the colleges, they’re offering scholarships every year,” Mr. Mauro said. “Stony Brook [University] just put in a gaming stadium, Alabama put one in. A number of colleges around the country consider it a sport, and it’s an area where there’s a lot of money flowing into it for colleges.

“We looked for interest in our district, and we found from both parents that I spoke with and kids that there would be an interest for it,” the administrator added of the district’s work over the past year and a half to bring esports to Southold. “That was coupled with the fact that we had some grant monies that came through some of the COVID-19 grants that allowed us to, with some of our own finances too, create a space to do it.”

During the state championship matches, Bryan and his teammate, junior Jake Baxendale, 16, often cheered after scoring goals and languished with disappointment throughout their Rocket League matches. Juniors Bryce Keels and Nick Talabadze, both 16, more subtly celebrated goals and aired frustration over failed offensive and defensive maneuvers. It is in witnessing these interactions one more easily understands why this activity is regarded as sport.

“It’s very similar to sports with the teamwork aspect of it,” Bryan said. “We all work together and there’s a lot of communication. Obviously it’s not as physically demanding, but the team aspects of it, I’d say they carry over.”

Many of the esports students also play traditional athletic sports. Throughout his time at Southold, Bryan competed in cross country and track, while Nick plays soccer and basketball. Like the other sports he plays, Nick said clocking in countless hours, teamwork and leadership are essential for success when playing Rocket League. As an individual player, he has reached the highest rank, “Supersonic Legend,” a title shared by only 2,700 other players out of the millions who have played the game.

“You can’t let your attitude get the best of you,” Nick said. “You just have to stay positive, and you can’t get cocky because the game can change really fast.”

To Mr. Wesnofske, the league, like other sports, offers students an opportunity to remain engaged in the rest of their high school experience.

“It builds not only team camaraderie but a sense of school culture,” he said. “It can attract kids who aren’t typically involved in sports to become involved in an activity. And it’s part of the future.”

Southold’s students started preparing for the HSEL’s spring season Friday, and Mr. Wesnofske said he expects to have around 15 students participating in the coming weeks. This time around, students will play Rocket League in teams of three and have the opportunity to progress through their regular season to state, regional and even national championships.

“[We’re starting] spring league, I’m definitely gonna do that, and then next year I’m obviously going to do it again,” Nick said. “I feel like I’ve had the most passion for this game. It’s just really fun, and especially for such an activity to be done at the school, it’s just amazing. And I heard there’s a lot of opportunities going around, which is cool.”