SANDPOINT — If you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you may have missed the rapid growth of esports.
In the blink of an eye, playing video games has gone from a leisure activity to NBA teams drafting their own squad of gamers to play 2K not for fun, but competitively head-to-head against other teams around the league.
And the money being made by the professionals who are playing video games almost daily, and streaming it live on platforms such as Twitch, is hard to believe.
In July, a 16-year-old won the first ever Fortnite World Cup and took home a grand prize of $3 million. Gone are the days where parents can complain about their kids spending too much time staring at a computer or TV screen because guess what, they can make a career and life out of it.
Esports is popping up everywhere and its found its way to Sandpoint in the form of the SHS eSports team club.
“It’s not question of if but when it comes to your school,” said Dalton Hawkins, a math teacher at SHS and the club’s adviser.
Formed over two years ago, the high school club has already seen plenty of success with a team finishing top eight in the nation in 2017 and a pair of kids making it to the national playoffs this year playing Minecraft.
Hawkins took over the video game club when he arrived at SHS about two-and-a-half years ago, and shifted it over to esports after receiving feedback from students.
To compete against other high schools around the U.S., the club uses an organization called High School Esports League (HSEL). Hundreds of schools around the nation use the platform to play a handful of games including Minecraft and Rocket League.
During the season, kids on the club compete weekly against other teams and players from the Pacific and Mountain time zones.
The club recently wrapped up the fall season which started in mid-September and ended in early December after the team’s two players that made it to the playoffs missed out on advancing to the finals.
Olen Neu, was one of the two gamers that made it to nationals. Neu took 25th and missed out on advancing to the finals by one point and one place.
But given Neu is only a freshman, he has plenty of time to make it to the finals. The HSEL awards a $1,000 scholarship to each student that wins the national final in their respective game.
Neu decided to join the club after checking out what the team was all about while he was still in middle school. He signed up immediately after that and has enjoyed every second of it.
“I’ve always been interested in video games,” he said, “and I like the idea of playing them competitively so I thought this was a cool opportunity.”
Currently, 26 students are on the team and in the club’s first meeting this year Hawkins classroom was packed with kids looking to join.
Hawkins said the school’s current policy prevents students from playing video games involving shooting such as Fortnite and Overwatch on high school grounds, which is something that was decided once the club became centered around esports.
But the students can still play those games outside the high school on their own time and not competitively for the school.
“We kind of act as a conduit for a lot of kids of like ‘hey I like Overwatch, you like Overwatch, let’s not play at school let’s play together,’ which is kind of what I want.”
Hawkins said one of his main goals when he took over the club was to foster relationships between kids on the team so they would meet up to play games outside of school time.
Hawkins, a 2009 SHS grad, remembers having a similar experience when he was on the video game club, which was started by current principal David Miles II in 2005.
Video games have been a passion of Hawkins ever since, as he helped form a video game club at a small school in Alaska before returning to his old stomping grounds in Sandpoint.
The club meets every Tuesday and utilizes the 14 computer science computers at the school to play. Some kids strictly use these computers to compete while others have the ability to play from home which Neu did for most of his competitions, Hawkins said.
“This club has been great,” Neu said. “It’s given me something to do because I haven’t really participated in any sports programs prior to this. I’m really enjoying it because it’s giving me something to do other than just playing by myself.”
Just like any other club at the high school, the esports team relies on fundraising to stay afloat and pay for the “fresh” jerseys and backpacks each kid gets.
Neu sold $200 in raffle tickets for this season which allowed him to pay for a jersey, backup and two seasons of competing, which costs $40 per season.
“Some kids step up to the plate and they fundraise their tails off and they pay for more than what they’ve raised,” Hawkins said.
The support from the community has been great since the club began, Hawkins said, and he is currently looking for a way to give back to those who’ve helped support esports at Sandpoint High over the years.
Hawkins is also hoping to make the club more accessible to students who come from a low-income family.
Over the years, people who play video games have been labeled as nerds but with the explosion of esports that stereotype has started to be wiped from existence.
“Some people think that we’re all nerds and geeks and so we all have As,” Hawkins said about his team’s 2.5 GPA requirement, “no, I have kids that their whole drive to get good grades is so they compete on our team.”
There are also people that argue esports isn’t an actual sport, which Hawkins won’t fight you over.
Hawkins said he’d be fine if they called it eactivity instead but he did make a convincing argument for why it should be considered a sport.
Hawkins cited a German Sports University study from 2016 that found esports athletes are exposed to similar physical strains as typical athletes. They determined the strain on an esports athletes’ mind is comparable to that of a race car driver and their pulse can reach the same level as a marathon runner.
He even said almost everyone with a smartphone today can be considered a gamer with the amount of apps available to them on their devices.
Regardless, Hawkins said he is aiming to create a program that breaks common misconceptions about gamers including that they aren’t as dedicated as an athlete who plays a sport such as football.
In order to do that, Hawkins wants the students in the club to get in the weight room and create a consistent workout routine focused on reputation, something he said professional gamers do to perform at their best.
“If we want to try and be professional, we got to act like professionals,” Hawkins said.
And after starting with just six players on the team in 2017, Hawkins said he has seen the level of dedication from students increase significantly.
“I’m starting to see more kids taking it more seriously especially as more colleges offer up these scholarships,” he said. “There’s a lot of money that’s starting to open in colleges. I get contacted by recruiters pretty often.”
Besides competing through HSEL, the club setup a head-to-head matchup with Lakeside High School last year and hopes to do another competition with them this spring during Memorial Day weekend.
Hawkins said he is also trying to put together an exhibition match with Lakeland’s club during Battle for the Paddle on Jan. 17.
Hawkins said the players on the team learn a lot about how to communicate with others through the club and he’s glad the school has helped provide this opportunity for the students.
“If [the students] don’t have this they’re just going to go home,” Hawkins said, “and play in a dark cave by themselves and yell at some dude that they’ll never see again. With this they can’t just yell at the person that messed up because you’re going to see them tomorrow at school.”
Sandpoint opens its spring HSEL season March 23 while five kids will start competing in a league separate from HSEL in February to play League of Legends.
The club hosts a LAN event at the Sandpoint Library typically on the second Saturday of every month.
Hawkins said the club is always accepting donations and if you want to purchase a team jersey visit sectorsixapparel.com and search Sandpoint.