Students compete in Alaska’s first sanctioned esports state championship

East High School students, from left to right, Tom Cabanilla, Dragon Lee, and Lorry Lee play the video game “League of Legends” online against Petersburg High School during the first sanctioned esports state championship. (Photo by Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Esports, or competitive video gaming, has been steadily growing in Alaska schools for the past few years. The new activity is helping foster community within schools.

In Alaska’s first sanctioned esports state championship on Jan. 31, Anchorage’s Dimond High School prevailed over Sitka’s Mt. Edgecumbe High School and crosstown rivals East High School in both of the featured events.

To earn a spot in the state championship, East High School competed against Petersburg High School in a playoff matchup.

It was a quiet start to the match between the two teams. It was the first time they have played against each other. But East High senior and team member Tom Cabanilla said his team was ready to go.

“This is the playoffs, so we’re pretty excited,” he said. “My team’s pretty hype right now. We’re going to get this easy dub and then move on to the next round.”

But there weren’t any cheerleaders or physical spectators for the playoff game at the University of Alaska Anchorage Esports Lounge — except those watching the livestream on Twitch. Petersburg’s team wasn’t even in the same city. It was just Cabanilla and his five other teammates at their computers, along with their coach and a few UAA staff and students milling around.

Competitive gaming is a relatively cheap activity. There are some startup costs, and schools do need computers and a solid broadband internet connection, but teams don’t have to travel to compete. Over the past few years, more and more schools across the state have started esports clubs and teams.

But this is the first school year that the Alaska School Activities Association has had a sanctioned esports program. That means schools across Alaska can officially compete against each other under the same rules and regulations.

East High School math teacher and esports coach Bradley Smith, standing at right, watches the gameplay during the competition. He says his job is to make sure the students are communicating effectively with each other and the other team, rather than advising them on how to play the game. (Photo by Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

The association says about 46 teams participated across the two types of official video games this season: “Rocket League” and “League of Legends.”

“It’s not very often where you get a teacher telling a kid to play more video games,” said East High School esport team coach Bradley Smith.

A math teacher by day, Smith said he started a pilot esports program last year and is happy to have more support. But, he said, it’s been hard communicating a positive narrative to the community.

“We get a lot of stigma about (people who say), ‘Why would I want to pay the $190 for the activity fee for my kids to play video games when they can just play it at home?’” he said. “So that’s been a bit tough to get through.”

Smith explained there are tangible benefits, including scholarships that students can earn from playing esports. And, he added, it helps provide students who otherwise wouldn’t participate in after-school programs with an activity they can get involved in.

The relationship between team members on the bEast sports team, as they call themselves, is one of their strengths, Smith said.

“They hang out with each other outside of school and not when we’re in here, so they have a pretty good friendship going around, which helps out quite a bit,” he said. “I see them playing all the time, so (they’re) just a good group of kids I think.”

That community and involvement is part of why Cabanilla said he joined the team. He had played “League of Legends” before but recently picked it back up to play for East with his friends.

East High School senior and esports team member Tom Cabanilla during a playoff game. He plays top laner in “League of Legends,” and has become an advocate for esports at East High. (Photo by Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

“Senior year, I have a lot of regrets, especially not joining too many sports because I just didn’t want to,” he said. “This is probably the only thing I can join right now, to enjoy the last moments of high school.”

Cabanilla has become an advocate for esports at East, even getting his yearbook teacher to give the team some space for a feature — a back-to-back spread. He hopes it’ll bring the sport more exposure.

“Just so that people around school and the school district can realize how esports is actually, like, a growing community now.”

He understands that some people aren’t quite sure what to make of esports just yet, especially compared to more familiar sports like football or basketball.

“But in the end, it’s just like any other sport,” Cabanilla said. “We’re here for fun. We’re here to win. We’re here to compete.”

Despite some pregame nerves, East was able to pull out a 2-0 win over Petersburg in the playoffs, and another over Steller Secondary School, moving on to the final round. The team ended up losing to Dimond High School in the state championship game.


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