Colorado high school sports coaches and administrators have adjusted practices, games and meets to satisfy public health requirements amid the COVID-19 pandemic in hopes of returning to high school sports this fall.
While sports like cross-country were more easily able to manage social distancing and symptom regulation, team sports had more hoops to jump through — crowded buses, pep rallies, student sections are a thing of the past. Meanwhile, schools continue to experiment with virtual learning, having mixed results.
The scramble to bring back high school sports has opened a new door for a sport without the inherent intermingling issues other sports have: esports.
The Colorado High School Activities Association is considering making esports an official high school sport. The CHSAA esports pilot program begins its second regular season Oct. 15. By season’s end, CHSAA could decide whether to make esports a sanctioned sport.
“These are kids who are not typically involved in their high school community and experience outside of the classroom,” CHSAA Spokesperson Ryan Casey said. “By and large, this is a population which is not involved currently in sports or activities, so we see this as a way to get them more involved with the community aspect of a school.”
The regular season includes eight games and four rounds of playoffs, with the championship scheduled for Dec. 11. A varsity team for “Rocket League” has three players, and a team for “League of Legends” has five. Most schools participating have at least a varsity and junior varsity team.
Matt Flori moved to Colorado in 2017 to teach science at Gateway High School in Aurora. One year later, Flori heard rumblings of people organizing esports matches at the high school level.
Bouts of “League of Legends” and “Rocket League” took place in classrooms as clubs and developed a popular following. Dozens of Denver-area schools formed their own teams. Flori stepped in to organize the first high school esports tournaments as Gateway’s first coach.
“When I was growing up, not every single student played video games,” Flori said. “It wasn’t the cool thing to do. Nowadays, every student — male or female — plays video games.”
Flori was hired at Castle View High School in Castle Rock this year, and has yet to meet his new esports team face-to-face. Coaching his players virtually is a challenge, he said, but students have been able to remain connected through playing.
“There are a lot of clubs and sports that are just not playing or meeting right now,” Flori said. “The fact we can do this at home, from the comfort of our couch, to comfort each other and talk to each other — it’s really helpful for the students to keep up with that social engagement.”
Flori said he believes competitive gaming will play a larger role at the high school level as the sport continues to gain popularity.
“The difference between esports and every other sport is in the amount of students who already do this,” Flori said. “Esports isn’t new for students. It’s new for adults, but it’s not new for students. They already play these video games, whether they’re professional or not.”
More colleges are beginning their own esports programs and several offer scholarships. The top gamers can make a living off esports. In 2019, esports viewership through apps like Twitch and YouTube totaled 454 million, according to Business Insider. The industry surpassed $1 billion, according to a 2019 report from Newzoo, a games and esports analytics group.
Breaking into the professional realm of esports can be daunting, which is where high school coaches can come into play, Flori said.
“A lot of amateur teams and collegiate teams are looking for the next big thing and next big student,” Flori said. “This will start to open up those avenues for the kids.”
‘More than a fad’
Chandler Farnsworth has been competitive his whole life.
The 17-year-old from Highlands Ranch grew up in a “golf family,” he said, and attributes his hours spent on the links to his fiery “Fortnite” play. A student at SkyView Academy, Farnsworth started gaming his freshman year. Now, as a senior, he feels can safely say he can beat anyone at his school in any video game.
“It’s a hobby for me,” Farnsworth said, “and I really wanted to do it for more than just for fun outside of school.”
Though “Fortnite” is not a CHSAA esports game title, students can still play exhibition matches with other titles during practices. The pilot program only includes “League of Legends,” a five-on-five battle-arena game, and “Rocket League,” a two-on-two game akin to soccer, for now.
Farnsworth helped start the first esports team at SkyView this year.
“We had more interest in esports than we did golf,” Farnsworth said.
To coach the team, the school hired Chris Curtis, an esports pro and current program director for South Suburban Parks and Recreation’s esports department. Curtis has organized tournaments across the Front Range and is an advocate for the sport.
“Everybody is starting to realize this is a bit more than a fad,” Curtis said. “Schools are learning how to incorporate this more … You’re seeing students who wouldn’t enter in a physical sport enter this and it becomes the driving factor in increasing their grades.”
Curtis added that esports players are subject to academic requirements set by CHSAA similarly to other sports, adding a layer of academic motivation for interested players.
Farnsworth believes esports will continue its rise in popularity and will eventually help debunk the stereotype of the isolated, antisocial gamer.
“If you’re good at the game, people will find you eventually and you will get a community around you,” Farnsworth said.
And earning that CHSAA seal of approval could be crucial to the sport’s attempt at establishing credibility. There are 17 states nationwide that have esports as a sanctioned activity.
“More often than not, there is a big spike in participation once a sport is sanctioned,” CHSAA spokesperson Ryan Casey said.
Flori and Curtis agree esports will continue to surge in popularity. Flori said some teams are working on adding a “unified” team for students with special needs.
“I think it starts at high school and leads into college,” Curtis said. “I would not be surprised if within the next five to seven years you’re seeing a handful of high schools offering esports as a competitive offering with any other sport.”