Gaming ground: Esports make way into TC classrooms – Traverse City Record Eagle

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Updated: October 4, 2021 @ 3:38 am
Traverse City, MI
Jacob Snover is one of a dozen Traverse City Central students that are forming a school esports club. The club will play “Rocket League” with other clubs from around the state.

Jacob Snover is one of a dozen Traverse City Central students that are forming a school esports club. The club will play “Rocket League” with other clubs from around the state.
TRAVERSE CITY — Jacob Snover was talking to his friends at lunch about Rocket League when his supervisor “butted in” the conversation.
Turns out Traverse City Central High School geometry teacher Mitchell Heethuis also played the popular vehicular soccer game, and they figured it would be cool to score goals as the Trojans.
Who’s better? Snover or Heethuis?
“That’s worth a 1-v.-1,” Heethuis said.
Now that’s a reality. A dozen TC Central students are forming an esports club and will compete against schools all over Michigan. They will be the first high school team in the 17-county northwest Michigan region, and Traverse City West Senior High is also set to launch a team in January, according to Ben Zenner who runs West’s Video Game Club.
The dozen gaming Trojans has students from all walks of high school life.
“We try and be as inclusive as possible. We have lots of people to do everything from playing, to running the steaming, to graphic design,” Snover said.
Snover plays hockey. Two run track. Many who joined the club play in the Central band.
But others hadn’t been involved with an extracurricular until the opportunity arose, Heethuis said. That also appears to be a trend on esports teams at both the state and national level, according experts across Michigan.
“It feels pretty good that I’m making a more inclusive environment for this school,” Snover said.
The Michigan High School Esports Federation oversees competition across most of the state — and schools in the Mitten who have esports teams are not necessarily the largest ones.
The closest to Traverse City previously was Marion. Three schools in the Upper Peninsula have clubs that participate: Burt Township, Powers North Central and Baraga.
But there is a beauty of esports that many community colleges are coming to embrace — no travel. Games are at 4 p.m. (one hour after dismissal) on Tuesdays and tournaments are on the weekend.
Just this past week, Northwestern Michigan College played Overwatch against Northern Virginia Community College on Saturday and Northeast Oklahoma A&M three days later.
“We can just do it all from our school,” Snover said.
Schools that compete in the MiHSEF play Fortnite, Valorant and Rocket League.
Michigan isn’t the only state that has an governing organization (much like the Michigan High School Athletic Association is for football teams in the state) for its esports teams. All three neighboring states — Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio — have high school esports leagues organized similarly to Michigan’s, and each are volunteer-run.
The MiHSEF provides member schools with structure for rosters and matches, scheduling, rules and policies and dispute negotiations. Thirty-seven teams signed on for its inaugural fall season in 2020, which has grown to 47 school districts/ISDs across Michigan with 303 students on rosters for the following winter season.
There’s also the Southwest Michigan Esports League, which is based out of Berrien Springs.
MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said Monday in an interview with the Saginaw News there are no formal plans for esports to be a MHSAA sport, but the association has been asking athletic directors for input on the topic in its surveys.
“It was the one sport that we could have conceivably sponsored with few problems during the (COVID-19) lockdown,” Uyl said to the Saginaw News. “There is nothing on the horizon, nothing planned as far as esports, but we wanted to put it on the survey just to see what the feeling is on it, based on the potential after what happened for 18 months during the lockdown.”
Gaming business experts estimate esports to be a billion-dollar industry, outpacing traditional sports like professional rugby in revenue. College scholarships for esports teams totaled $15 million in 2020, and even locally Northwestern Michigan College began offering $500 scholarships per semester to student athletes who are a part of the Hawk Owls’ esports teams.
North Central Michigan College in Petoskey and Northwood University in Midland both have esports teams. Northwood even offers a BBA degree in esports management.
Research from the North American Scholastic Esports Federation (led by the University of California Irvine) shows that esports programs teach STEM subjects out of the classrooms. NASEF also found esports built a community among students and staff, and positively impacted students’ attitudes and social-emotional skills. Representatives from NASEF and the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance recently presented such research last Saturday in Traverse City at the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators’ fall conference at Grand Traverse Resort.
Even at the high school level, because most varsity athletic departments require student athletes to maintain a certain GPA, the MiHSEF says students are more motivated to perform better in the classroom because they are part of a team.
Central’s esports team is a club program for now, but should the Trojan’s athletic department decide to pick the team up, student athletes would qualify for varsity letters and the door would be open for paid coaches.
“That’s what downstate teams have,” Heethuis said. “They have entire labs dedicated to it.”
Heethuis said the team likely will get there at some point, but it’s been fun to build the team from the ground up with fewer restrictions placed upon them.
One could guess there’s inherent challenges when trying to play video games on school WiFi designed to prohibit just that and using school computers that are better suited for typing English papers.
Some of the club members don’t even play games. They’re into things like Twitch streaming, modifying computers, generating graphics and coding.
That’s where their place on the team becomes valuable.
NMC is using an entirely separate network from its student WiFi for esports with its own personal firewall. The esports lab stands alone from the rest of the university.
Central is planning to play on it’s journalism lab’s computers, which already run high-demand programs like Adobe Creative Suite. Heethuis said that’s what caught the program’s eye for needing to run Rocket League.
“They seem super helpful to give us time windows that we can play, and so we’ll remove those filters for games during those times,” Heethuis said.
The MiHSEF season runs from Oct. 5 through Nov. 16. The club finals are Nov. 30. Registration closed for the fall season Sept. 24.
Eventually Snover said the club wants to stream its matches, though that won’t happen right away.
Follow Andrew Rosenthal on Twitter @ByAndrewR
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