By Ryan King
Community News Reporter
PORT AUX BASQUES — Planning for an eSports league at St. James Regional High began last fall and after some exhibition games on Feb. 7, the regular season kicked off on Feb. 28. The league is called the St. James Saints, with teams of students called the Saints Platinum and Saints Diamond.
Margo Leamon, is a teacher at St. James, as well as the coach and organizer.
“We have five teams of two playing Rocket League (RL), one person playing Nintendo Ultimate Smash Bros (or just ‘Smash’), and one person playing 10-minute chess. Students play one match per week. Each match is a ‘best of’ series, RL and Smash are best of 7, and chess is best of 3.”
Establishing the league involved discussion with administration and the district office, and even guidance from the cities of Edmonton and Winnipeg about their leagues.
“Some guidelines were established about the type of content we wanted for our students,” said Leamon. “It was important that the content of the games would be appropriate for all of our students in a school setting.”
There is no official body established yet in Canada that oversees high or middle school eSports.
“Other provinces and cities have associations, but there is none for school aged students in NL. So even though I could have a team, I had to find a virtual arena in which to play.”
Leamon was able to arrange a meeting with the organizer of a Canadian league called True North Esports (TNE) from Ontario.
“TNE is partnered with Generation Esports out of the US, but this league has only Canadian school teams.”
Leamon’s role as coach is largely a background one.
“I’m there if they have questions and I’m the go-between for the students and the league organizers. I’m the coach, but not in the traditional sense, as I don’t do drills and practice! I submit the rosters online and share the schedule because different games are played on different days. I check in with students about their games, and sometimes we have to sub players in on the roster if someone can’t make a game time. One of the older students runs the Discord server (Discord is an app that gamers use) for our team, of which I like being a part because it’s an excellent platform for communication.”
The members are quickly become experts.
“They play from the comfort of their homes, but it is in a supervised environment where chats are moderated by the coaches. Students and coaches can report people who are gaming inappropriately in the sense of bullying or harassment or bad language to other players. Everyone is expected to follow the code of conduct which is stated clearly in the league rules.”
Leamon is not the only staff member supporting the league, and there is strong support from the administration and the district.
“They see the value in using eSports to connect students to their school and their peers. Right from the beginning, they showed support by saying it was a great opportunity for students to connect and build relationships doing something they love in a safe, organized space.”
Leamon decided to start the league given her background with organized sports.
“Over the past two years, the restrictions around COVID-19 have affected all of our students’ extracurricular activities. They lost the things outside of academics that kept them connected to the school and community – the things that relieve stress, and keep them physically, mentally, and socially healthy. This was a safe way to have students involved in their school again.”
Leamon said eSports have flourished during the pandemic.
“We are playing teams from Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and more on a weekly basis – something that would be difficult for other sports teams in our school to do!”
“My history with video games is with Asteroids (on Atari), and the original Mario Brothers when I could get the controller out of the hands of my younger brother in the late 80’s.”
During the first COVID-19 shutdown March 2020, Leamon took the opportunity to take part in online Minecraft webinars since the game was added to all school computers.
“Last summer, I worked with my 8-year-old niece to use the ‘compound creator’ and ‘crafting tables,’ all under the guise of me teaching her some chemistry, and her teaching me about Minecraft.”
A major benefit of eSports is to feel like a part of a team.
“They get to talk about their matches at school just like any other player would the next day after a hockey game or basketball game. They learn to work together, practice to get better, show sportsmanship, and build problem solving skills. They have to learn the landscape of the game and figure out all the nuances, ‘tricks’ and systems of play. The best traditional athletes are not just skilled at moves, but actually understand the game, learn to collaborate with other players, and show commitment – it’s no different for eSports.”
The regular season tournament for the TNE league started Feb. 28 and runs until May 20.
“We play the other teams from across the country once a week. We may have other tournaments that we can join before this school year is out with other associations, but I am working on that. I am also looking into forming a small tournament within NL, because I did find a small number of contacts within our province.”
She has also been in contact with School Sports NL.
“They put out some feelers last year to see if eSports could be part of the provincial system when all the traditional sports were canceled, but there was very low response. But we are working on that too!”
Leamons has been inspired by the support for the eSports league.
“When I first put out the call in December that there would be a league in our school, I had so many students come to me that couldn’t believe this was happening. I have 12 students involved, which is as many players as most of the other teams that we have. I spoke with a coach at a school of 1,200 students outside of Montreal, and her whole school has only 12 people involved, so it’s great that we have as many as we do.”
The kids have also found the experience to be exciting.
“The way the league works is that it tries to match evenly-skilled players against each other. So the more you play, the more even your matches will get as time goes on because you likely won’t be paired against a team that is highly skilled compared to you.”
The inclusiveness of eSports is also a significant aspect.
“Esports reaches out to all kinds of students, no matter your physical ability. You can have special needs, or physical challenges, or be a top athlete; you can be the most introverted and shy or the most outgoing and loud,” said Leamon. “It doesn’t matter. In the eSports arena, you are on the same field.”
As the league grows, Leamon would like to eventually see student wearing eSports team jerseys.
“I would like for it to be woven into the fabric of our school, where students say to each other ‘Hey, are you playing on the eSports team this year?’ It would be nice to see our teams playing a game while it is streamed online so our community could watch. Maybe we could have an event in our gym where an audience watches our team play on a big screen in a final against another team.”
There are even eSports teams across North America that receive scholarships for university and sponsorships from companies.
“Others all around the world play eSports for a living. Recently, we just watched an NL team come home from the Olympics with a medal, so it is certainly possible that we could also have an eSports champion!”