Alabama high schools roll out their newest varsity sport – video games


Esports, which are competitive video game contests, will become an Alabama high school-sanctioned sport beginning in February 2019. In this picture, a mew Esports Arena is unveiled in October 2017 at Western Michigan University (file photo) (The Associated Press)


The glow of Friday night lights outside of high schools in Alabama have dimmed for another year after this weekend’s state championships.

But in 30 high schools around Alabama, students will soon bask in a new glow.

Computer screens and TV monitors inside labs and tech rooms from Chickasaw to Piedmont will light up a new competitive stage as the state rolls out its latest state-sanctioned, inter-school “sport” – video gaming.

Participating schools are in place to begin the competitions – called “esports” – starting in February, with a culminating event, akin to a state championship, occurring in May.

“It’s growing at a rapid pace, the schools have embraced it and we hope to reach a set of athletes who don’t participate in other sports,” said Marvin Chou, assistant director with the Montgomery-based Alabama High School Athletic Association.

Varsity jackets

Alabama is one of only a handful states rolling out esports competitions during the inaugural season for competitive events.

Esports were first sanctioned approximately 18 months ago by the Indianapolis-based National Federal of State High Schools, which is the country’s primary leader for high school sports like football.

It’s the first new sport sanctioned by Alabama since bowling was added about four years ago. And it’s expected to be the most popular sport added to U.S. high schools since cheerleading and drill team competitions began in the early 2000s, said Mark Koski, CEO of NFHS Network, which is a joint venture between the NFHS and PlayOn! Sports to broadcast high school sporting events online.

PlayOn! Sports, based out of Los Angeles, is contracted by the NFHS to provide the digital infrastructure needed to support the high school esports in Alabama and beyond.

“This is one that has been the fastest to take off,” said Koski, referring to the popularity of esports, which kicked off this fall with five state associations participating – Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Georgia and the Georgia Independent School Association.

Alabama will join those schools, along with Mississippi, Texas and Kentucky to offer competitive esports this spring, which is the inaugural season for the sanctioned events.

“The goal is for esports to surpass football (in participation),” said Koski. Esports teams are co-ed, and are open to anyone from the 9th to 12th grades. “It’s going to provide championships, and these kids will have an opportunity to wear the leather jackets and represent their communities just like any other school activity.”

But questions are emerging on whether the AHSAA is sanctioning a traditional sport or something long considered a youthful hobby. Esports, this spring, will be lumped into sport portfolios that include baseball, softball and track & field.

“There were always some questions about being sedentary and sitting there (playing video games),” said Chou. “But we just felt like when you talked about it on the national level with the other states … that there were positives with hand-eye coordination and teamwork and things like that.”

Chou added, “It gives some kids who do not want to play football or basketball or tennis, an opportunity to represent their school and community.”

Virtual arena

Participating Alabama high schools are required to set up a computer lab or another venue within their buildings for esports competitions, but overhead costs are low. There is no travel as each individual school will be competing against each other in a virtual arena.

Coaches will receive a stipend.

Each participating student will be charged $64 per season, with the money going back to the NFHS to pay for the management and computer software fees with PlayVs.

State associations are not being assessed anything extra to participate.

The schools will establish teams of five or three, depending on the video game. The schools will challenge each other in three games – SmiteLeague of Legends and Rocket League. Smite and League of Legends are considered “multiplayer online battle arena” games in which players are pitted against one another in virtual competitions similar to a capture-the-flag contest. Rocket League is a soccer game played in rocket-powered cars.

“It’s one of the most popular games out there,” said Koski said.

Noticeably absent from the roster of games are popular titles like Fortnite or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, or anything else that would involve shooting.