The Serious Endeavor of Playing Games

School News
December 4, 2018- It’s a scene that one might consider typical of kids playing video games—iridescent snacks and sugared beverages scattered throughout the Vail Mountain School technology lab; teenagers intently focused on flat-screen portals to electronic fantasy worlds; constant chatter dramatizing each and every move of their avatars. But rest assured, these kids are not just playing games and they defy many of the stereotypes that so many so easily cast on “gamers.”

Meet the GorE-Rangers, the group of Upper School students who are Vail Mountain School’s first officially-sanctioned eSports team. They talk strategy. They practice. They compete with other teams in a league. They even have coaches and team jackets. And with their first season behind them, they’ve got a lot to be proud of, but first we’ll back up a bit and push the start button.

It began last year with conversations between VMS Technology Director Dean Chambers and Kim Zimmer, the school’s Technology Department Chair. Ms. Zimmer had been teaching a coding class and there was an ongoing joke about making t-shirts for the group emblazoned with the words “varsity coding.” But why joke—why not legitimize the recreational interests of students whose passion lies in the digital world? Gaming is, after all, a rapidly growing, multi-billion dollar industry with sponsored professionals and influencers who get paid to play—just like professional athletes. And like traditional sports, there are even college scholarships available for gamers. The idea began to gain steam, so Mr. Chambers looked into what other schools were doing.

He quickly discovered that there were, in fact, high school eSports teams popping up all across the country, and that a robust gaming league existed right here in Colorado started by a like minded teacher at Ridgeway High School. A poll of VMS Upper School students yielded interest from eight—two more than the minimum needed to establish a team—and shortly thereafter, VMS joined the Mountain Gaming League as the GorE-Rangers.

The team is comprised of eight students in grades 9-12 coached by Mr. Chambers and Mr. Rosenkrantz. They range in experience from casual gamers to aspiring professionals. They compete using electronic pseudonyms like FluxPrototype46, Pinkchicken1, and Hawkspiral64, and each student also has a specialty, kind of like the different positions played by athletes on traditional sports teams. Some enjoy the more chess-like strategy games such as Hearthstone. Others prefer one-on-one physical combat like Brawlhalla, “where the greatest warriors in history brawl to prove who’s the best that ever was, is, or will be.”

Yet others, like Alexander Viola are drawn to games that are more grounded in reality. He specializes in Rocket League, which is basically soccer with cars. And this makes total sense, because outside of eSports, Alexander’s interests include coding, soccer, and physics. IRL (in real life) he played goalie for the VMS JV Soccer Team this fall. And in the interest of debunking stereotypes, it’s worth mentioning that several of the GorE-Rangers also represent VMS as varsity and JV athletes in sports like tennis, golf, and basketball. One of our gamers even plays hockey for Battle Mountain.

Seven of the students are boys. Only one is a girl, but 12th grader Andie Billingsley is content to help break down this stereotype. Billingsley is also one of the leaders of the team, setting strategy on games like Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone that require the concerted and coordinated effort of several individuals. She also played a leadership role in getting the team off the ground. “Not everyone was interested in all the games, but given the structure of the matches, we needed a certain number of players to compete in each game,” says Billingsley. “There were kids with interest in Magic the Gathering, which is a strategy game not unlike Hearthstone, and we built interest from there.”

The League is comprised of ten teams ranging from small, independent schools like VMS to much larger public schools in Denver and on the Western Slope.  Each of the schools competed in weekly matches that included five different games- Brawlhalla, Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone, Rocket League, and Overwatch. Game wins contributed to match wins, which in turn determined the overall league standings.

The matches are intense with gameplay generating emotional highs and lows, but just like traditional sports, the students are there for each other. The matches even drew small crowds of cheerleaders that included fellow students, parents, teachers, and even the Head of School. The most interesting group, though, was the assembly of people outside the east door when the fire alarm went off mid match. Undeterred, the kids grabbed their laptops, set up on a rock wall outside the tech lab, and kept playing.

Like traditional sports, the bigger schools against which VMS competes are at an advantage.  With a larger student body, they are able to field teams with greater depth, but VMS’s relatively small size has not stopped the GorE-Rangers from being competitive. At the close of the season, which spanned late September to mid November, VMS placed sixth overall with strong showings in Rocket League and Brawlhalla where they finished second and fourth, respectively.

As for the long-term benefits, Upper School Director Maggie Pavlik believes that eSports can make a true contribution to a high school. “Just as with upper school athletics, our ultimate goal is for our athletes to experience our Mission through the team. We want students to understand teamwork and strategy, experience good coaching, understand how to work with others, and build skills that will serve them well in the years to come.”

Reflecting on the season, VMS Junior Rav Seller noted, “It’s felt great to have an outlet and a place to share my passion for gaming.” Seller distinguished himself throughout the season as a versatile and strong player, often serving as a de facto “Captain” setting strategy during games. “I don’t always take leadership roles in classes, but I feel like this was a real opportunity to step up and lead and it was great to have others looking up to me. It’s an undeniable part of our culture these days and though gaming is not played on a field or court, it is still a sport in the truest sense. There’s teamwork, competition, team spirit and nearly every aspect of physical sports crosses over to gaming.”

So, for this year, it’s game over, but the future looks bright and the GorE-Rangers are already recruiting for next year. “There’s a lot of interest from this year’s eighth graders,” notes Seller. “It’s nice to know that we’ll have a pretty significant team going forward.”