IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Esports Program Builds Community at Davenport Schools

Students and administrators say digital streaming platforms, referrals and college recruitment test tournaments have made organized video game competitions among the fastest-growing extracurriculars in Iowa.

(TNS) — It's not atypical for high school students to spend hours of their day playing video games. But members of the Davenport Community School District's esports program have used their gaming skills to garner two state titles and over $1.2 million in esports scholarship offers.

Esports refers to organized video game competitions where participants compete with others from different leagues or teams in popular games like Fortnite, Smash Brothers, Overwatch or NBA2K.

Since the program's inception, over 150 students have participated, making it one of the fastest-growing extracurriculars in Iowa. They've won state titles in the Fall 2019 Smash Brothers: Ultimate State Championship and Winter 2020 Overwatch State Championship, advancing to playoffs three more times since.

With digital streaming platforms like Twitch and Discord, esports has grown from a niche sector of the gaming community to a billion-dollar industry with a bustling fanbase. Statista estimates esports viewership will rise to over 46 million in the U.S. by 2023.

Gaming students who have excelled in this new medium of competition can thank Alene Vandermyde, TLCS tech innovator at DCSD. She kickstarted the program and founded the Iowa High School Esports Association (IHSEA) in 2019.

Vandermyde entered the world of competitive gaming at a young age. She reentered the esports world in 2018 when a student approached her about sponsoring a High School Esports League (HSEL) League of Legends team.

"It all snowballed from there," Vandermyde said.

The program runs similarly to competitive high school athletics, with separate seasons and organized practice schedules.

"We have three seasons; fall, winter and spring. We align them as closely as we can to athletic seasons," Vandermyde said.

The team competes for two titles each season, played on Tuesday and Thursday nights. When the team isn't competing, they practice.

"When you think of a football team reviewing their game play, we do that too," Vandermyde said. "We'll review game play of previous practices or games and talk about what we could have done better and what we did well."

Vandermyde said the team moved on to a team-building phase of practice, which usually entails skills challenges within whatever title participants are competing for.

"Then we go into team practice," Vandermyde said. "We'll run plays, other team-builders and go through specific maps if we want to explore those things."

Davenport Central High School hosts the team's esports arena, but Vandermyde said any high school student in Davenport is eligible to join.

"The Central High School staff have been amazingly supportive throughout this entire process," Vandermyde said. "They keep their eyes out for students they think may be in need of the esports team, so I get a lot of referrals. I think the teachers really see the value in this experience."

Vandermyde was awarded the 2020 National Association of Esports Coaches and Directors (NAECAD) High School Director of the Year — a rewarding and reassuring experience, she said.

"When you're building a program entirely from scratch, there isn't a lot to judge yourself off of. So for someone to say, 'No, you're doing it right' assured me that I was headed in the right direction," she said.

Vandermyde attributes the team's growth and success to several factors; one being a college recruitment beta test tournament hosted by Brigham Young University and Harvard University.

"The tournament came with college coaching," she said. "Because of it, we got a lot of notoriety in the collegiate scene. It also made me a better coach. I listened to drills they had kids doing and how they structured their practices."

Chase Neukum, director of esports at St. Ambrose University, said college recruitment for esports had similarities and differences to traditional athletic recruitment.

"Esports is still emerging, so we take a more interpersonal approach with high school to establish relationships and strengthen the year-to-year pipeline. We consider a player's academic achievements, extracurriculars and in-game record," he said. "The other key difference from athletics is how often recruits can play with their prospective teams. With esports, we don't need to meet in person to play. We can gauge whether they fit the team culture, and vice-versa before they commit."

Vandermyde also gave a nod to her assistant coach, Jackson Grubbs, for the team's accolades.

"He basically holds the fort down when I'm gone. He's great with the students and makes sure they stay on task," she said. "It's been an awesome partnership over the last three years."

Grubbs decided to reach out to Vandermyde and volunteer to coach after his younger brother joined the team.

"It's just naturally been a great fit and awesome to put time into the organization and see where it's gone," Grubbs said. "I've greatly enjoyed working with the students because it's a great way to connect with those stereotypically seen as less social."

With technological innovations and growing fanfare, the prognosis for esports looks promising both locally and nationwide.

"It's definitely our goal to continue pursuing validity as close to traditional sports as we can," Vandermyde said. "We want this to be an educator-led movement across the nation. It's been awesome to see those grassroots — but also embedded — competitions continue to grow."

Neukam was a founding member of IHSEA with Vandermyde. He's worked toward local esports grassroots development since 2018. He, too, is hopeful for the industry's future.

"I'm a firm believer that scholastic esports is a cultural movement which will have similar implications compared to traditional sports," Neukam said. "We're currently witnessing the second golden age of sports. Think early 1900s, when football, basketball and baseball developed their own industries and their impact on global culture. We're seeing the same thing with esports, as interest in gaming continues to grow, esports will too grow."

Grubbs hopes esports continues to remain a safe space for students as the industry expands. He'd like to see it streamlined in the world of competitive sports.

"When students enjoy interacting with each other in this space, it creates a better foundation for not only the students, but the adults they'll eventually become," he said.

All things considered, Vandermyde said it's not all about the competition, but the community.

"What people struggle to understand when it comes to esports is that they picture a kid in a basement huddled over a dark screen by themselves. They're not understanding that the whole point is to combat that," she said. "It's all about bringing them into our arena together and creating a positive community."

©2022 Quad City Times, Davenport, Iowa. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.