The esports craze officially hit Sierra High School in 2021 and the scene resembled an early 2000s sleepover: Friends gathered around TVs, with the occasional trash talk that comes with every sports endeavor, real or virtual.
Joshua Cosby, a freshman at Sierra, didn’t budge in his seat nor move his eyes from the action on a large flat screen TV in the school’s science lab, a room that briefly housed the players.
Cosby hoped to earn a victory for his team in Madden 21, an NFL video game, on the PlayStation 4.
Controlling the Los Angeles Chargers, Cosby trailed 7-6 against the Denver Broncos in the second quarter, but soon ventured into their territory.
Cosby’s focus paid off three plays later as he found pay dirt on a pass play to take a 13-6 lead as he, his teammates and Coach James Disney celebrated the score.
“It feels pretty good to have this opportunity,” Cosby said. “It’s exciting because now we can play as a team instead of going against each other. We can help each other and get better. The more time we get the better we’ll get and the more time we have the better we’ll get.”
The Colorado High School Activities Association added esports in 2019-2020 to provide more opportunities for kids to participate in after-school activities.
CHSAA allows players to compete from computer labs, in-person, at school or from a gaming computer, which allows participants to navigate COVID guidelines with little hassle.
Esports at Sierra has a myriad of titles to choose from including: Madden, FIFA, Smite, Super Smash Bros., League of Legends and Rocket League.
“We continue to see growing interest in esports in Colorado, and this second year of the pilot program has only reinforced that,” said Ryan Casey, CHSAA Digital Media director and overseer of esports.
Christian Romansik, Devon Smith and Robert Kuhns hoped to start a team at Sierra and approached the administration last year to explain their goal.
“We kept asking [Sierra athletic director Bob] Bentley if he wanted to start up an esports club,” Romansik said. “He saw in Colorado we could play some games and from there he helped get the program started.”
The trio nearly brought their plan to fruition in March 2020, but then the pandemic interfered.
“As we tried to do esports, near spring break, COVID-19 started to get really bad,” Romansik said. “We heard we had to have an extra week off after spring break. After that extra week, we were told schools wouldn’t likely open until the next school year.”
As Sierra reopened in the fall, Disney said he heard no mention of the program. Then, in January, Bentley refueled the discussion.
“I heard he’d been running the esports club during December,” Disney said. “[Bentley] asked if I wanted to coach it and I said yes. They started bringing their friends and next thing I know, it snowballed into having 30 kids.”
Shawna Peterson, the esports assistant coach, said she’s grateful for the evolution of the team and has witnessed a paradigm shift with many students. Kids once quiet as church mice became chatterboxes after they slip on a headset or get on the sticks.
“I’ve coached travel and club leagues before and I think I’ve seen more excitement out of these kids,” Peterson said. “I don’t know if it’s because it’s a solo activity and they get to play something they enjoy, but it’s a whole different thing. They mold into each other’s games and help each other out even if it’s a tech issue. It’s rewarding for them and they see themselves helping someone else.
“To see this interaction and some happiness – even though you can’t see their smiles because of the masks –even if they have no clue what’s going on in another game, it makes all the difference in the world.”
The program also connects kids from different backgrounds. Disney said Berengere Maquet, one of the school’s exchange students, joined the club despite having limited experience in games like Madden.
Darryl Small, who’s on the Stallions’ Madden team, showed Maquet the aspects of the football game and coached her through an exhibition contest.
“They just started playing and coach Peterson sent me a picture of it,” Disney said. “It was good to see because she doesn’t know what American football is. But she’s able to learn something unique to our culture.”
Other players also have the opportunity to showcase their knowledge in various games.
Freshman Giovanni Rodriguez, a member of the Super Smash Bros team, recalled vivid details about various Pokémon games, strategies to develop Pokémon and methods for each player to improve.
Rodriguez enjoys discussing games he loves, but most significant for him now is how the team continues to unite everyone.
“I think it is definitely more useful for involving students,” Rodriguez said. “Before quarantine, a lot of students didn’t have groups. I knew a bunch of people who didn’t socialize because they didn’t share the same interests. Now, seeing this club, it has helped bond people.”
That’s Peterson and Disney’s goal with the program: Help kids feel welcome and unite participants while creating bonds.
Disney said several players came to the group failing “some or nearly all of their classes.” Disney said a majority of the team turned their Fs to passing grades
“All of the sudden it’s, ‘I’m a part of this and I have to be eligible; I want to be able to play with my teammates,’” Disney said. “We also have study halls and other kids help their teammates with assignments, especially our older kids who have already taken these classes. They’re working together to achieve a common goal of making sure everyone is able to play.”
When Romansik and his fellow students sought to start the team, they hoped to provide an avenue for entertainment while also competing where they could thrive.
Seeing it blossom into a program where several players shine and build relationships is the proverbial cherry on top.
“I love the direction it’s going in,” Romansik said. “It’s great to see that people have been inspired to take video games [seriously] as a profession and that we all can compete and show that Sierra doing pretty well.”