More than 77 different high schools are now competing across Nebraska in competitive esports and while it may not be an official sport, the esports community is finding ways around it.
The Nebraska Schools Esports Association, or NSeSA, has three seasons each school year, fall, winter and spring, that rotate games seasonally including, but not limited to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Mario Kart 8 and Valorant. With a state tournament held at the end of each season.
According to the Nebraska School Activities Association website, NSeSA now has more high school teams than tennis, with 67 for boys and 76 girls tennis teams across the state. Because esports is a unisex sport anybody can play it, making it more accessible to all.
The NSeSA established themselves three years ago, according to Treasurer Josh Hughes. While it may still be considered new compared to other sports, high schools are eager to support their esports teams.
“One of the things that principals and superintendents like about esports, is that you don’t have to bus and travel kids all over the place,” Hughes said. “They don’t have to spend the extra gas money and stuff like that.”
Hughes said not only is it important for students to be involved in a school sport, but esports also helps kids who may not be interested in school activities a way to get involved. Through esports, kids get to know their classmates and also have the opportunity to connect with peers across the state.
“I’ve had kids make friends with kids halfway across the state, you’ll be playing against somebody and recognize their online name,” Hughes said. “But if you go to an in-person tournament, they meet each other and they physically shake hands after the game.”
The gaming industry looks to be male-dominated, but in 2020, research showed women make up 46 percent of the gaming industry. Tim Barth, the esports coach and science teacher at Marian High School, said he sees the opportunities not only for all students to get involved but also a blooming community for women as well.
“They’re always playing boys and they really want to beat them. So when we do get a win, it’s pretty exciting,” Barth said. “There’s a lot of girls that come that just want to hang out and play whatever games and then I get some that want to compete.”
Getting kids involved in after school activities can be difficult if they don’t connect with sports. However, Barth said this gives students the opportunity to be involved in an after school sport with like-minded peers.
“For me, I think it’s nice that the girls who don’t necessarily play sports, or are involved in other activities might have a different outlet to meet other people that are similar to them, and have something fun to do after school,” Barth said.
While teachers may be the main starting point for esports in schools, parents are also getting involved. Adam Qualset, a parent and the coach of esports at Waverly High School, started the Waverly team this school year. He said teaching kids how to process losing and winning is an important part of esports.
“It’s good for some kids to become more involved in school, it’s good for social skills, good for teamwork and good to know how to win and lose,” Qualset said. “A lot of students maybe aren’t involved in sports, so they wouldn’t have any sort of competitions that they were ever involved in. So this may be their first glimpse into that world.”
Amer Khan, a coach at Lincoln High School, said he’s been working with his team to help combat toxicity that can plague matches. Pulling kids aside to chat about these issues can be necessary due to the level of severity it can have mentally.
“Being able to focus on the moments where people really need to make a correction or an adjustment to behavior is hard to identify,” Khan said. “Just don’t engage with toxicity, don’t let it get to you. If it is a problem to a degree that it’s affecting their gameplay or messing with them on a more mental level then, I will talk with them.”
Owen West, a coach at Lincoln High School, said esports may not be a sport to compete with football or volleyball yet, but it can still bring people together even if a parent might be on the fence about letting their kids join.
“If there were parents that didn’t like it or or didn’t want the kids to do it, I’d be like we’re fostering an environment where kids who are competitive in something can be competitive,” West said. “They can care about it, they want to get better and they can show it to everyone.”
The high school esports community expanded from 13 teams at first to more than 70 teams across Nebraska. And more than 200 colleges nationwide are handing out scholarships, including Midland University and York University in Nebraska.
“There is a market for it. There is intrigue for it in the world,” Khan said. “I think it’s a thing that people can come together in the same capacity as traditional sports.”