Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
LOS ALAMOS – The five-man team was focused. An early scoring advantage meant victory was all but inevitable.
Although a lot of chaos was happening on their screens, members of the Los Alamos High School League of Legends esports team were calm and communicating well in what became a 35-7 rout against Rio Rancho’s Cleveland High School on Tuesday.
“That was pretty brutal,” 17-year-old long-range attack specialist Jamie Cull-Host said of the lopsided victory. Los Alamos hopes to win state championships in the New Mexico Activities Association’s inaugural season for esports – which, for those not in the know, is competitive video games.
Thirty schools are participating this year, according to NMAA associate director Dusty Young. About 50 schools expressed interest, but not all of them could field teams, so the number of participating schools is expected to grow in the coming years, Young said.
Unlike other competitive sports or activities such as debate or academic quiz battles, no travel is required since the video games are played online. The NMAA state championships will be held online April 27, and Young said there was the possibility for a live event – where teams would gather in person in one place – in the future.
For now, teams can compete in multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games, such as League of Legends and Smite, as well as soccer-with-cars game Rocket League. Los Alamos head coach Jason Rutledge said he expects his Smite team to win the state championship this year.
The Los Alamos program started originally as a school video game club with well over 40 students; from there, tryouts were held to determine the teams for each game. Although the turnout for the video game club, which meets about once a month, is still huge, only 17 boys are competing in the NMAA activity.
One reason for the drop-off in club participation is that first-person shooter games – in which the player is often looking down the sights of a gun and shooting at enemies – are not sanctioned by the NMAA. That leaves the roughly 30 students who show up to the club each month to play the popular first-person shooter Overwatch left out of the official competition. That also subtracts players of other popular shooter games, like Call of Duty and Rainbow Six.
“Once they found out we weren’t going to have a competitive team on, like, Rainbow Six or some of these big shooter games, some of them kind of filtered out,” Rutledge said.
Although he understands the NMAA’s stance on shooting games, given all the worries about real-life gun violence in schools, including in New Mexico, Rutledge says he hopes the NMAA will consider adding shooters in the future.
Unlike more realistic and violent games, like Rainbow Six, Overwatch is much more lighthearted and has the aesthetic of a Pixar movie.
“Anything that can be remotely considered a shooter, they wanted to leave out of the school setting,” Rutledge said. “We take the approach that Overwatch is a giant monkey running around and hitting people with an electric rifle that shoots beams of electricity. It’s completely fantasy.
“We appreciate that they’re taking a cautious route, but we hope we can change their mind. The teamwork that game teaches is unlike any of these other games because it’s strategic and a lot more communication-driven.”
But students hoping Overwatch or any other shooter game becomes part of the competitive scene shouldn’t hold their breath.
“Currently, there are no plans to offer Overwatch or any other first-person shooter games,” NMAA’s Young said in an email.
Although some girls show up to the gaming club meetings, including one who Rutledge said is one of the top 500 Overwatch players in the world, there are no girls on any of the school’s competitive teams, even though squads are supposed to be co-ed.
Rutledge said a lot of girls, despite prowess on the screen, stray from playing competitive games online because of the harassment they can face.
“It’s very hard to be a female playing video games,” Rutledge said. “Most of them would prefer for people to not know they’re female.”
Senior Joseph Ortiz, captain of Los Alamos’ Smite team, said guys can be “toxic” towards female gamers online.
“If they go online and play, they might be discouraged, or none of their friends are playing, or it’s not something they see as possible,” Ortiz said. “I think the way you get girls in is by having other girls.”
John Tiernan, head coach of Robertson High School’s team in Las Vegas, said some girls showed interest at first, but now only eight boys remain in the Robertson program.
“We had a couple of girls come in, but they dropped out before the season started,” Tiernan said. “I’m not sure why.”
Rutledge says he can’t coach during a competition. He was observing Tuesday’s League of Legends match against Cleveland, but he waited until it was over to talk about what kind of strategies could have worked better.
“All of my coaching is preparation,” he said. “It’s all about working with them before the actual match. In the esports world, coaches aren’t allowed to be on headset with them. The students are on their own. I’ll give them encouragement and stuff, but that’s the extent of what I try to do.”
That why he needs captains who can be good leaders and good communicators. Ortiz emerged as the Smite captain because of his in-game talent, as well as his communication skills.
“In the early part of the game, we’re trying to communicate to get an early kill and get an advantage quickly,” Ortiz said. “We just communicate what we’re doing at all times, and where (the opponent) is at and what we’re capable of doing.”
While Los Alamos appears to be the cream of the crop, Robertson’s team is doing its best to compete with some of the biggest schools in the state. His teams are showing improvement with every match, coach Tiernan said.
“Every time they play, they show adaptability,” Tiernan said. “They’re getting better by leaps and bounds. We’re going up against schools that are three, four times our size.”
Tiernan said he has the idea of creating regional teams for smaller schools so students from nearby towns like Mora, Wagon Mound and Roy can also participate, even if the schools don’t have enough students to field a team.
Setting an example
Those involved in esports this year expect the activity to grow. Ortiz, for one, said he never thought he would be representing his school by playing video games.
“Video games weren’t being talked about as being competitive or anything related to school because video games were seen as taking away from school,” he said. “I never thought I was going to be sitting here playing video games at school.”
The current Hilltoppers hope they’re the start of a budding esports dynasty for the Atomic City.
“Our goal was to be leaders in New Mexico on esports,” Rutledge said. “Even if we’re not winning, we want to set a good example for how this should happen. We’re not even there yet. We’re on the path, and I think we’ll be there in the next couple of years.
“It’s something that’s going to grow. I think it’s going to be very big, and it’s going to allow students who have not been in choir, band, sports, a chance to express and compete, and get all of those amazing skills that we want athletic teams for. These kids are playing at home and they’re not getting that key thing, so this allows us to teach that key teamwork component and make them better people doing something that they’re already going to be doing at home.”
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Esports (competitive video games) expected to grow in NM