Baraboo’s defenses crumbled further with each passing moment.
Ourobøros was wreaking havoc in the jungle, stealing team buffs left and right. DeathSlayer2001, supported by Coffen123, established control of the bottom lane and picked up several kills for early-match momentum.
And once Milton High’s esports team got rolling, its opponents barely posed a threat. The Red Hawks breezed past Baraboo in less than 30 minutes.
No risk of injury. No bus trip. No missed school time.
Milton is among a handful of Wisconsin school districts to sponsor a varsity esports team. The ‘e’—if you hadn’t guessed—stands for electronic. A growing number of schools nationwide have realized video games can be used as a tool to engage with under-served sections of the student body, namely kids that aren’t interested in traditional sports or clubs.
The game is League of Legends, a free-to-play online computer game which pits teams of five players against each other in an arena divided into three lanes. The ultimate goal, usually, is to eliminate opposing players and free up a path to their nexus. Destroy the other side’s nexus, and you win the match.
The strategy is complex—too lengthy to detail here—but it’s essentially capture the flag mixed with spellcasters and assassins and dragons.
It sounds crazy, but it’s being taken very seriously in Milton.
“It’s a beautiful thing, because it really encompasses everything you want in education,” said Nic Manogue, Milton’s esports program coordinator. “You want collaboration, you want higher-level thinking skills, you want strategy, you want them to build relationships with others and work together. And all those things come together.”
‘My room was just packed’
Manogue and Tim Hall, both teachers in Milton’s tech ed department, began thinking seriously about starting an esports team last winter.
“We started looking at it a little more and asking around a bit, and we saw just a large population of students that weren’t engaged in things, but wanted to be engaged in something,” Hall said.
When 60 kids showed up to Milton’s first esports meeting, the two organizers knew they had stumbled into something big.
“My room was just packed,” Manogue said. “And these are all kids that are not in other extracurricular activities. We’re like, ‘OK, we might’ve hit something here.’”
Neither Manogue nor Hall had much experience with League of Legends, so they enlisted the help of Justin Watson, a member of Milton’s information technology staff with a deep understanding of the game. Hall said Watson runs practices and is the team’s de facto coach.
Milton competes against six other high schools—Hartland Arrowhead, Cedarburg, Oconomowoc, Racine Walden, Baraboo and Waukesha West—as part of the Wisconsin High School Esports Conference. According to the conference’s website, four more schools are set to join in the spring.
The Red Hawks went 3-3 during the regular season, which ended Dec. 6 with their runaway 28-5 win over Baraboo. Milton squeaked into the playoffs as the No. 4 seed and will play top-ranked Cedarburg in a conference semifinal Wednesday.
This all might appear to be just school-sponsored gaming. That’s far from the reality. Consider this:
- Students have to maintain good grades to stay on the roster.
- All the equipment needed was already in a computer lab at the high school.
- League of Legends is free to play and the coaches volunteer their time.
Each player on a League team has a unique role, and victory requires teamwork, quick thinking and many hours of practice—no different than a football or basketball team.
“We put in all the precautions so people would take it very seriously as a sport,” Hall said. “Between the teamwork, the collaborative effort between all the students, it’s the showing up to practices, the overall environment that is like any other team that’s out there. I think that speaks volumes. It’s not just the playing of the games.”
Jeffery ‘about thirty ninjas’ Garbe, a senior top-laner, has been playing League since 2013. He’s noticed esports gain mainstream attention but still didn’t think they would ever take root in Milton while he was in school.
“I always had a thought that it would get big. I just didn’t know when it would get big,” he said. “The fact that it grew so big so fast is kinda surprising.”
He also noted the differences between playing at home with an online team and playing shoulder-to-shoulder with his school teammates.
“It’s completely different play styles,” Garbe said. “When you’re playing on a team like this, it’s like everybody is coordinated, everybody is one person working together. It plays out like a real team sport.”
Milton’s varsity lineup against Baraboo consisted of top-laner Garbe, junior support Zane ‘Coffen123’ Coffen, senior jungler Ryan ‘Ourobøros’ Herrington, senior mid Cole ‘Gransee’ Gransee and senior ADC Li ‘DeathSlayer2001’ Siu Chan.
Part of a larger wave
The eports phenomenon isn’t slowing down. More colleges are putting money into esports programs by building state-of-the-art facilities and offering scholarships. Professional sports teams, including the Milwaukee Bucks, are investing in pro esports teams.
The finals for the 2017 League of Legends World Championship in November were played in Beijing’s National Stadium—the Bird’s Nest, the venue which anchored the 2008 Summer Olympics—and were watched online by 60 million people. The champions, South Korea-based Samsung Galaxy, won more than $1.5 million in prize money.
Esports in Wisconsin aren’t to that level yet, but it could only be a few years until e-athletes will have the opportunity to play for state championships like their football or basketball brethren.
Maybe, even, with the WIAA’s name on the trophy.
Bryan Wegter is a sports reporter/page designer for The Gazette. Email him at email@example.com