On Wednesday afternoon, Zach Suchomel strategized with his four teammates in advance of a match of Smite, an online battle arena game.
He suggested characters to use and to block as part of the game, each calculation aimed to give Tomahawk High School a better chance to beat Two Rivers High School.
Suchomel is a junior at Tomahawk and one of the leaders of the school’s eSports team.
With their hands on controllers, eyes on the screen of a gaming computer, and mouths constantly communicating with teammates, the opening round of combat went well for Tomahawk. It defeated Two Rivers in just 18 minutes.
For some area colleges and high schools, sports aren’t limited to competitions on the field or court.
Like at Tomahawk, school-sponsored eSports are exploding in popularity, giving students a chance to use skills from the video game world against virtual opponents.
But the gameplay is more than leisure time. Those skills can translate to academic scholarships or even careers.
Suchomel calls the chance to join the brand-new Tomahawk eSports team an “amazing opportunity.”
It’s just such a great experience for people to do something and be able to be involved in a school extracurricular that isn’t traditional sports, because some people aren’t interested in that,” he said. “It gives us the opportunity to be a part of something, to be a part of a team.”
Inclusion is what coach Paula Norman hoped to achieve when she thought up the team, which just started competing this month.
She’s not a gamer herself, but she knows many of her students at Tomahawk High School are.
“I’m amazed, because I can’t look at all of the dynamics that are going on on that screen and then still process and be able to talk and communicate the way they do,” Norman said. “It just blows my mind what they can do, because I can’t.”
Norman worked to raise funds and find grants for gaming equipment to get the team off the ground.
“That was my whole purpose for the grant to have somewhere for these guys to fit in and have somewhere in the high school to be a part of. Because who doesn’t want to fit in in high school?” she said.
Some high schoolers fit in by competing in traditional athletics.
In the eyes of competitive gamers, they’re no different.
“One hundred percent,” said junior Tim Herman. “In my opinion, this takes about as much skill as playing football, being out there on the field.”
Some Tomahawk eSports players hope to pursue careers in information technology or computer science.
On the other hand, Herman wants to study geology in college, but thinks eSports can help him pay for it.
“A bunch of schools have their own eSports team and offer a scholarship for an eSports player,” he said. “It gives me a much better chance to actually study my career.”
One of those schools is Gogebic Community College in Ironwood.
Jim Halverson has been teaching IT there for 33 years and is the school’s eSports coach.
“I will definitely use the word ‘sport’ because these are athletes,” Halverson said. “I’ve got 15 players that are on scholarship out of the 22 that are on the roster right now. Honestly, I have the same budget as the basketball team for scholarships.”
Like Paula Norman in Tomahawk, his expertise isn’t the gameplay itself. “I predate Pong,” Halverson said with a laugh. But he believes eSports fosters life skills like communication and teamwork.
His team’s long hours of practice and play have paid off, leading to a second-place finish among junior colleges nationally in the Rainbow 6 Siege competition last year.
“We can always say we were national champion runner-up in the [National Junior College Athletic Association], and that’s as far as any athletic team at Gogebic has ever gotten in any athletic endeavor since 1932," Halverson said.
Cody Schwartz, who’s studying music education at the school, was on that team.
“I remember just shaking as the game was going on. I was so nervous. It was tough to even think,” Schwartz said.
Aaron Froelich knows the feeling.
He played four years of college baseball and is now an assistant coach for the Gogebic eSports team.
In his mind, competing at a high level in eSports is about more than racking up points and kills in first-person shooter games.
“College athletics in itself, whether it’s baseball, football, et cetera, it’s so helpful for moving forward,” Froelich said. “You learn so many lessons.”
In just a few years, the number of American junior colleges fielding eSports teams has expanded by nearly nine times, said Keegan Bolen, who helped create the first team at Gogebic.
“Since we started it in 2017, I think it’s just blown up tremendously,” he said.
Bolen expects the popularity of school-sponsored eSports to only continue its explosion, with even more teams, games, and scholarships offered.
He was on the national runner-up Rainbow 6 team a year ago.
After putting in even more work with his teammates, Gogebic is back to earn an even loftier title in the virtual arena this time around.
“Hopefully, we’ll try and take that number one spot this year,” he said.