Can high school teams in Southeast Alaska compete with rivals on the North Slope? With esports, it’s possible.

Petersburg High School’s esports team, Solstice, competes against Angoon in a game of “League of Legends.” (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

Esports is growing in many high schools across Alaska. Forty-five schools this fall have video gaming teams, and that’s expected to double in the spring. The sanctioned sport will see its first fall season state tournament.

It’s game time, and Petersburg High School’s esports team, Solstice, is competing against Angoon. Five Petersburg players are sitting around a table with their laptops open. They’re on the stage in the auditorium with a handful of people watching the video game projected on a big screen.

They’re playing the battle arena game “League of Legends.” The game noise is pretty quiet. Mostly what you hear are the players talking to each other.

Senior Jack Byrer is at the table, but he’s not playing. He’s the team’s coach, and he’s guiding freshman Malcolm Fry through his first competition. Few adults at the school likely have the skill set for this type of mentoring.

“You kinda do a little bit of math,” Byrer tells Fry. “Kinda think like, ‘OK, so it’s here, I can maybe do one or two.’”

Senior Jack Byrer coaches freshman Macolm Fry while freshman Jozef Myrick looks on. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

Fry says that joining the esports team has been fun so far.

“You actually get to sit down … and have a fun time,” he says.

He’s not the only freshman on the team. It’s Jozef Myrick’s first year too.

“I heard about it in eighth grade, and I was like, ‘This sounds like fun,’” Myrick says. “I’d played ‘League of Legends’ a long time before, back when I was in seventh grade, and yeah, I decided to come back to it for esports.”

As a freshman, Myrick is on the junior varsity team for this matchup with Angoon. Petersburg is in red and Angoon in blue. Each player has chosen their character from over 150 options, each with different skills.

Myrick explains that the characters can get banned by other players.

“That’s why it’s definitely recommended that you play multiple characters and you know how to use them in different ways,” he says.

Screenshot of the Petersburg High School Esports team’s League of Legends’ characters playing with Angoon’s characters. Each team chooses characters to play before the game starts. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

In “League of Legends,” players have skill rankings. For starting junior varsity players, it’s usually around the 10s and 20s — seasoned varsity players can be over 100.

Myrick says some players in the world are ranked over 1,000.

“Just because, what we quote, ‘They don’t have a life,’” Myrick says, chuckling. “Because they’re shut-ins, and they like to hide in their room or something like that and just play.”

That’s not the goal of these students.

“No, our goals are just to progress as much as we can and get better at the game,” Myrick says.

The 2019 Alaska esports championship team, the Petersburg High School Solstice, shown here in May 2019. From left to right: Tristan Enriquez, Jack Byrer, Caedmon Collison, Merrick Nilsen, Liam Demko, Trace Cook. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

Esports is about having a life as a high schooler. It creates a team environment for some students who otherwise aren’t connecting with their peers after school.

“We feel like it really has the potential to serve a bunch of students that, for whatever reason, none of our current offerings are really appealing to,” said Billy Strickland, the executive director of the Alaska School Activities Association.

“When schools start esports, usually right around 35-to-40% that get engaged weren’t engaged in any of your current offerings,” Strickland said. “This gives a student another reason to get involved.”

The ASAA sanctioned esports in April. That means, like other school activities, players need to keep good grades and follow other requirements to participate.

There are some technology challenges to esports. Broadband internet service with high bandwidth can be a competitive factor. Also, PC computers are more compatible with some of the games than Macs are, which some schools use.

Strickland said, in the future, those factors might determine classifications in the sport more than school size. But Strickland says the costs are minimal compared to other in-person activities.

“Technically speaking, in a few weeks we could have Petersburg playing Barrow, and there’s no cost of travel,” Strickland said.

Back in the Petersburg auditorium, Rita Byrer watches the game on the big screen. She’s Jack Byrer’s grandmother and says she watched the team’s games last spring too.

“I think it’s awesome,” she says. “Not all kids want to do sports activities, physical activities. This sport is for those kids that, you know, they’re good at computers and that’s where they’re expertise lies, rather than wrestling or basketball. So I think it’s great.”

For those keeping score, Petersburg ended up winning two games against Angoon.

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